From a Talk with Zadie Smith @ Wexner Center

From a Talk with Zadie Smith @ Wexner Center

This weekend I saw Zadie Smith at the Wexner Center. Like returning from an Available Light show, I left ready to write. While I felt so-so about her debut novel, White Teeth, I am interested in reading some of her later work. That's what I love about author talks; they give you context to a person's work. In Smith's case, she's left behind her multi-cultural comic novels for the time being. She wrote a few of those, went into an essay phase, and she's now writing work that is less about the humor of everyday life.

Or so I've gathered from the talk.

There were a bounty of references to her latest essay (and one of my favorite as a copywriter and creative writer), 'Find Your Beach' from The New York Review of Books. However, that's very new. She led the talk (whose subject was race and culture in literature) with a reading from 'Speaking in Tongues' (2009). This set the mood for her own personal experiences with adapting to different 'languages' as she moved between classes and among other races. And it wraps up with an elegant deconstruction of Barack Obama's appeal and his own ability to changes 'tongues'.

What followed her reading was part talk, part Q+A, and all wit. I can only include what I wrote down when I wasn't laughing.

 

On gentrification: "Nobody is saying it's more fun to be shot up in the streets than it is to eat cupcakes. Obviously, cupcakes are great. Smith goes on to talk about returning home to a neighborhood that's been gentrified, after all the tax funds have been dumped into it. She summarized it as 'humiliating'; as if you weren't worthy of this attention when you lived there. "It's not a city if you can't have relatively normal people living in it. Nothing to do but eat cupcakes."

On writing: "Writing is always about trying to be more honest."

On why she writes multi-culturally: "It was lovely to read Jane eyre, but she's got nothing to do with me. Where are my people, you know?"

On past vs. present: "That's true. There's nothing interesting about my present."

 

For me, the best part of this talk was the fact that she sold out the Mershon Auditorium. It's rare to have an outspoken, level-headed literary personality nowadays. Seeing Zadie Smith in person is a pleasure and one that I highly recommend to any individual interested in fiction or writing.

NOW-ISM: Abstraction Today [Pizzuti Collection]

The Pizzuti Collection is the new kid on the block for the Columbus art scene. Having only been around about a year now, not many of the locals will know where it is or even that it exists. The Collection, however, is a rare artistic gem for the Columbus community. NOW-ISM: Abstraction Today is their current show, and there has never been anything like this in Columbus. CMA has never had such an extensive show, and the Wexner Center is too small to curate a show like NOW-ISM. If you have any interest at all in modern art and live between Indianapolis and Philadelphia, you need to see this show.

This show exhibits a kind of playfulness you won't see in larger museums. The artists selected were playful with color, playful with line, playful with context. The result? A stunning collection in a modern gallery. This is the kind of art I wish that Columbus had more of. Granted, these are mostly artists who are fairly known in art circles (I'm assuming).

I wanted to hit on a few of the most striking pieces. I visited the Pizzuti Collection a couple months ago, but I'm still thinking about these works.

 

Looping (2007-08), Mindy Shapero

Looping, Mindy Shapero

The lighting in the Collection's online gallery photo doesn't do this justice. When I visited, this sculptural piece was on the balcony. Sunlight illustrates the colors present much better than the promotional shots. The upper portion of the piece is a vivid collection of color, sculpted with the illusion of intense, fast movement. It could be something out of a Starburst commercial.

What makes this large work interesting is its juxtaposition with the piece beneath it. The angular, black 'rock' under the flowing colors stands in stark opposition to the free-flowing motion above. The two also never touch. They are completely separate objects.

For me, this piece is about creative opposition. One object without the other would be boring. Yet as interesting as the sculpture appears at first glance, you don't even notice the half of it on the ground. One would not be nearly as thought-provoking without the other. Shapero produced my favorite piece in this show.

 

An Advice from Grandfather (2010), Haluk Akakçe

An Advice from Grandfather, Haluk Akakçe

I can't quite place what I love about this piece. I think that the offbeat, flat colors are what do it. Could also be the angles of the 'landscape' in the background. Then again, it could be that these forms make me think of a Lovecraftian family's day at the beach.

Akakçe's work is definitely unique. There's no denying that. There's something slightly sexual about this piece for me, too. Dark and sexual. It doesn't make me think of abuse, but rather unfulfilled fantasies. But that might be the bit of Lovecraft seeping in again. Darn you, Cthulhu!

The blurb on the Pizzuti Collection page is amazing, especially since I hadn't initially written any notes about this piece. That's part of the magnificence of a collection with an art library, though. Piste's resources are second to none (locally, anyway).

 

Evaders (2009), Ori Gersht

Evaders (2009), Ori Gersht

I am a sucker for video art. And Ori Gersht's Evaders is intriguing, harrowing, and tedious in its intensity. I mean that last part in a positive way. The tone of the piece plateaus quickly and begins to communicate a driving anxiety surrounding an ultimate horror of death, made worse by the hopelessness of the single possible glimmer of goodness.

Evaders tells the emotional story of Walter Benjamin's flight out of Nazi-occupied France. And the escape is historically only an attempt. Mr. Benjamin killed himself rather than be repatriated to the Nazis. The film, while not Aristotelian, tells a complete emotional story. Which is all I ask of film art.

Cruzamentos: Contemporary Art in Brazil [Wexner Center]

Veneza do Brasil

The Wexner Center recently held an exhibition of contemporary Brazilian art titled Cruzamentos. Sadly, the works are no longer on view at the Wex. I do encourage you to do research on some of the talented artists featured in the exhibition, though.

Initial Thoughts

Like most exhibitions at the Wex, Cruzamentos was a mixed bag of intriguing work and lesser works by more famous artists. The experience was more immersive and space-involved than some of their previous exhibitions. Walking up the main hallway, the ledge above was lined with cement and broken glass. Immediately, I assumed it was art chosen for its specific evocations of Brazil. Luckily, I was wrong. It was the Wex's (only) attempt at displaying Brazilian life with Brazilian art. With more thought and more thorough execution, this could've worked. But you are immediately put on edge by a sort of half-formed experience.

Certain pieces were haphazardly displayed in areas you weren't sure to look at. One actual piece of video art was projected on a sheet high above tyne main corridor, but could only be noticed on your way out of the exhibit. This was unfortunate because a loudspeaker at ear level blasted its soundtrack on the way in. You're initially not sure what you're listening to or why it's there.

In spite of the technical shortcomings and the usual challenges of staging an exhibition in the trapezoidal galleries, Cruzamentos was a strong showing of intriguing Brazilian artists that many Columbus artists could learn from.

The selected works here are the more memorable pieces.

Gambiarras Mosaic (2008), Cao Guimarães

Gambiarras Mosaic

 

Guimarães's contribution was a series of photography capturing makeshift solutions for household problems in Brazil. It absolutely captured how alien the culture could be from the eye of middle class American. Once you learn that each photo is an image of an object being used in unexpected ways, the mosaic of photos becomes a game. What's unexpected in this image? Or this one?

Though clever, I'm not sure if I found it artistically satisfying. It didn't bring attention to the cultural differences for a viewer in a gallery. So, in that respect, it could be called ineffective. It's subtle documentary approach would be more fully appreciated with an article about the poverty levels in Brazil. Overall, the series felt complementary to something that the audience wasn't privy to. Leaving the exhibition, I still think of this series. But perhaps not for the reasons the artist wants.

Great composition, vivid colors, interesting use of line in the works selected by the Wex. I am focused on the message and impact of this series and I admit that. They are not bad pieces. I found the context lacking.

Polvo (2013), Adriana Varejão

Polvo

Poorly photographed photos of a guidebook don't do this exhibit justice. I've found race to be a popular dialogue in much of the art that I've seen in the past few months (2013's strong showing of films including 12 Years a Slave, Available Light's production of We Are Proud to Present...), and none of them made such an impact as this series of portraits. Varejão explored Brazil's complicated colonial history and ideas of miscegenation in a series of eleven oil paintings.

Based on a 1976 survey asking Brazilians to self-identify the color of their skin, Varejão created 33 oil colors based on the most evocative titles. Then she painted portraits with them in a series reminiscent of color-by-number books for children. The room the Wex devoted to this series held a dynamic tension. Anyone entering could simultaneously feel vulnerable by the power of all eleven portraits staring at the entrance like a government council, but the viewer can also see the childishness in the semantics of race at play. It is a series that both reflects on the past and looks to the future. After all, it is the same woman painted in different colors eleven times.

Veneza do Brasil (2007), Laura Belém

(Pictured in the featured image for this post)

What may be most powerful about Belém's work is the element of surprise. It's very theatrical and not at the same time. How she weaves the viewer's emotions is typical of theatre, but her piece's 'performance' is without end.

At the end of the gallery is a tall structure made out of lumber. Household fans sit at each corner of the high box and a small set of steps allows a single patron at a time to ascend and view the piece. Expecting a deep diorama that one must look down into, we are instead surprised with a shallow pool of water. Handcrafted models of shanties float here, propelled in circles around the pool by the fans. It's mesmerizing and catches the viewer off guard.

The title of the piece (translated: Venice of Brazil) is a transient piece about the vulnerability of the most poor and their homes. It's eerily reminiscent of Hurricane Katrina without being informed by it at all. The context of this piece in an American setting evokes additional images that the artist almost certainly didn't intend, but add to the understanding of the piece.

Belém's work was the most successful at demonstrating the theme of the Cruzamentos show. It was a link between Brazilian and American crossroads.

Untitled (2013), Vânia Mignone

Untitled

Aesthetically satisfying, Mignone's Untitled (2013) uses bright colors and a contrast in motion to draw the viewer in. The woman in a bathing suit implies that she is submerged, her hair drifting upward in the current. the flat circles in the background show a different direction of motion. What's happening isn't immediately clear. The throwback to classic French and Italian ads from the early 20th Century is a welcome addition.

I can't honestly say why I like this piece; I just do. It's very large. It feels very "in the moment" of art while also showing signs of modern design trends (flat color, hand lettering).

What to Take Away

  • Context can make or break a piece. What is it saying? Who else is saying it?
  • Bright, solid colors are the way to go.
  • Race is visual. It's hard to talk about, easier to show and then discuss.

If you want to see more, the exhibition is closed. The Wexner Center sells their book in the store section, though. Good commentary and art. How can you go wrong?