Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Jacob Lawrence: The Promised Land

The Cantor Arts Center currently has a fabulous exhibit of works by Jacob Lawrence, one of the most important artists of the 20th century, called "Promised Land."  Art collectors who were friends of the artist's have recently donated these works to the museum.

Lawrence used a style he called "dynamic cubism" featuring figures that have been flattened and stylized. Construction was one of his favorite themes.

Construction, 1952

Here is a street scene with embedded interiors, a very unique perspective. Lawrence's style seems simple, but he forces you to look deeply to get his meaning.

People in Other Rooms, 1975

For his design for a poster to advertise an exhibition of his work, Lawrence combined the theme of construction with a portrayal of ideal family life.

Poster Design…Whitney Exhibition, 1974

Lawrence was commissioned to illustrate the Book of Genesis in the King James Bible. The actual folio is in the show.

Lawrence's illustrated version of Genesis

In his illustrations, Lawrence used the perspective of a child hearing a sermon. The preacher tries to dramatize the actions God took during the creation. The events he describes are shown through the church windows.

3. And God said—Let the Earth bring forth the grass, trees, fruits, and herbs.

4. And God created the day and the night
and God created and put stars in the sky.
A child hears all these stories within a community that assumes they are all true.

6. And God created all the beasts of the earth.

The artist also illustrated the Legend of John Brown. John Brown was a white abolitionist who lived before the Civil War. Lawrence showed that he had tried to earn a living as a surveyor, but all his ventures failed. After he accepted poverty, he devoted himself to the cause of abolishing slavery. He organized the free black men of the Adirondack Mountains in New York to help protect any escaped slaves coming through there.

John Brown formed an organization among the colored people
of the Adirondack woods to resist the capture of any fugitive slaves.

Lawrence's illustrations are wonderfully abstract, using minimal means to maximum effect. In this illustration of escaping slaves, the color scheme suggests that many escapes were in winter, and blue expresses the freedom they sought. The escaped slaves crept by stealthily, leaving only foot prints and blood stains.

16. In spite of a price on his head, John Brown
liberated twelve negroes from a Missouri plantation in 1859.

John Brown's most infamous action was to lead an unsuccessful raid on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry in Kansas. The artist showed only the bayonets of the men's rifles rising over a hill. He used minimal means to evoke a charged atmosphere.

19. John Brown with a company of 21 men,
white and black, marched on Harpers Ferry.

In his depiction of the clash, you can't tell the combatants apart. All are wearing ammo belts, except the figure on the left, who may be John Brown, bearing a sword like a cross.

20. John Brown held Harpers Ferry for 12 hours.
His defeat was a few hours off.

John Brown was a martyr to his faith and his cause.

21. After John Brown's capture, he was put on trial
for his life in Charles Town Virginia (now West Virginia).

Nowadays, Brown and his followers would be called terrorists because they used violence to promote their cause. The last illustration in the series is a masterpiece of simplified but moving composition.

22. John Brown was found guilty of treason
and hanged in Charles Town in 1859

In the image below, Lawrence interpreted bull-fighting from a black perspective. If black men imagine themselves as toreadors, they see the beast as white and vicious. This may be Lawrence's most direct condemnation of racism.

Dreams No. 3: Toreador, 1966

Late in his career Lawrence painted a picture of a happy artist at work. His style still uses tenets of cubism, but has become even looser and more minimal. On the wall is a print of a painting of Venice, showing that he is inspired by the old masters. On the easel the artist is combining the images that he used for "People in Other Rooms," which is shown above, thus identifying the artist as himself.

Artist in Studio, 1994

This exhibit raised my estimate of Jacob Lawrence from minor artist to major genius. His ability to combine words and images to illustrate a long story seems unsurpassed to me, and his symbolic images also tell moving stories. What raises his work above the norm is the way he uses aesthetic values like cubism and unconventional coloration to add mystery to his compositions, so that his meaning is not obvious right away, forcing the viewer to think about the significance of each element.   And he didn't waste any paint on mere prettiness; he always had something to say.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Alcatraz: What has Art Got to Do with It?

Are you curious about prison life? Would it give you some dark pleasure to imagine yourself stuck behind bars with a bunch of crooks and gangsters? Do you want to feel the gut-wrenching despair of a prisoner tantalized by glimpses of the shining city across the bay, nearby but unreachable? And then to suddenly escape on a comfortable ferry? Then Alcatraz is your kind of place.

Alcatraz Prison from the ferry
I took this and all the other snaps in the post on my iPad.
Personally, I was never interested in the joint until a world-famous Chinese artist named Ai Weiwei placed examples of his art there. I'm glad I waited. His show, called "Ai Weiwei: @Large" expresses the experience of imprisonment more poignantly than the empty, crumbling prison on its own, and at the same time softens and brightens the setting with glimpses of color, joy, and freedom.

Internet grab
I had a lot of misconceptions about the exhibit at Alcatraz. I imagined a big, block-house sort of place, in which a few of the larger rooms, probably the cafeteria for one, had been devoted to an art show. I planned to spend an hour or two looking at the art and then take a walk along the shore while the others in my party were touring the dank cells and conjuring up the notorious gangsters who once occupied them.

It turned out that the art exhibit is not separate from the prison. In fact, Ai Weiwei has turned the whole prison complex into an artwork, by installing different kinds of artifacts throughout. Everyone who tours the prison sees the art, although they might not recognize it. In fact, the purpose of the show is to enrich the tour, and in a way, it substitutes for explanatory plaques or a live guide.

Ironically, Ai Weiwei has never been to Alcatraz: He is prohibited from leaving China because his art and his politically charged blog have caused constant aggravation to the government by calling attention to its corruption and disregard for human rights. For a few years he was even confined to his own home and studio because of some trumped up tax evasion charges. And the formative experience in his artistic development was being actually imprisoned for 81 days because of his protest activities. That experience is a regular theme of his art. As a former prisoner, he can imagine life at Alcatraz, and as a powerful artist he can project a message of hope across the vast ocean.

Ai Weiwei
Internet grab
Of course, he had lots of help. In the first place, the show was commissioned by a non-profit foundation called FOR-SITE, an organization whose purpose is to sponsor art shows tailored to a specific site. Of course, the National Park Service and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy were involved in the effort as well. Moreover, Ai has a large studio in Beijing where he employs a sizable crew of assistants. And after the works arrived at the island, it took another large crew to re-assemble them according to detailed plans and frequent interaction with Ai Weiwei via computer. Ai's talent lies not in making things himself, but in being able to direct a team in the realization of his vision.

The basis for @Large is a shift in viewpoint from the punishment of gangsters who prey on society to the restrictions on freedom imposed on political activists like himself whose intent is to benefit society.

Ai makes the visitor trek all the way to the top of the 131-foot high island of rock for the first installation, no easy task as the road has quite an incline. That first building is called The New Industries Building; cooperative inmates were allowed to work here doing laundry for military bases around the Bay Area; they also made clothes, shoes, and furniture for government use.

The first thing you see as you enter is a traditional Chinese dragon kite. This is not a threatening dragon representing the ruler's power, but an energized, floating dragon that represents personal freedom. It creates feelings of joy and lightness, the perfect antidote for this horrid place. This installation is called "With Wind." The human spirit, meant to soar, is confined in a dingy laundry.

The dragon symbolizes power in Chinese myth.
Ai uses it to represent the power of personal freedom.
The dragon's body is made of individual kites.
Its winds around the ceiling of the dreary workroom.
Some of the individual kites that make up the dragon's body have colorful abstract designs; others have quotation from activists who have been imprisoned or exiled.

"…my words are well intended and innocent."
-Le Quoc Quan
Scattered around the room are other kites decorated with stylized renderings of birds and flowers. Ai's studio collaborated with Chinese artisans to produce these handmade kites.

Star-shaped kite with rising phoenixes.
After the up-lift of "With Wind," for the exhibit in the next room, entitled "Trace," the artist drops you to the floor, which is paved with LEGO bricks forming the images of about 175 people from around the world who have been imprisoned or exiled for their beliefs and their associations. Ai calls them "heroes of our time."

"Trace" commemorates political activists with LEGO portraits.
Why use LEGOs as an art medium? LEGOs are lowly, mere playthings, like political prisoners themselves. LEGOs convey the idea of digitization, a person reduced to an icon. LEGOs are popular, the way activists need to be. The images lie on the floor, representing how these people have been put down.

In "Trace," the artist wants us to work to understand his message. In the first place, the digitized images are hard to read; it's hard to tell who is who. And even after you get the image and figure out the name, you're still clueless because most of these figures are unfamiliar to Americans. After you have wandered around puzzled for awhile, finally you notice binders placed on lecterns along the edge of the display. The binders tell the background of each person represented. The images are grouped by region. All the Americans are grouped in the first panel. Once I knew who I was looking for, it was easier to pick out the images.

Martin Luther King, Jr.
I'm not so sure that Edward Snowden should be compared with Dr. King, much less referred to as a "hero."

Is Edward Snowden a hero? Or a traitor?
One image that often comes up in the news is that of Aung San Suu Kyi, a pretty woman with feminine attributes that make her photogenic. She is the chairperson of the leading opposition party in Burma (Myanmar). She was placed under house arrest shortly before the 1990 election, and therefore unable to take office when her party received over half the votes. She was confined to her own (quite comfortable home) for a total of 15 years. Hillary Clinton was among her famous visitors during that time.

Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the opposition in Burma

The next installation, called "Refraction," both expresses and creates total frustration. In the first place, it is necessary to climb a couple flights of stairs and wander without guidance along narrow hallways lined with bars and dirty windows to find it. And then the only way you can see it is through broken panes of grimy glass in the gun gallery. On a sunny morning, this is further impeded by reflections of the rocky wall outside.

Refraction, seen through a broken pane of glass.
Native rock of Alcatraz reflected in the remaining panes.
The structure itself is fascinating, and I prowled back and forth trying to get a clear view. I longed to descend to the basement to examine it up close, but access was not allowed. So frustrating. The structure consists of a wing-form, but in place of feathers are reflective panels originally used on solar cookers in Tibet. It recalls the wings created for Icarus so that he could fly to the sun. But this wing is held to the ground by its great bulk and by being confined in a basement, alluring but unreachable.

After you find your way out of this place, it is necessary to hike half-way down the rock, and then back up it on a hairpin-curved path, to get to the the Cellhouse. There are two installations in the Hospital there.

The Hospital

The one called "Illumination" is a sound experience. The two psychiatric observation rooms resonate with the sound of chanting, of Tibetans in one room and Native Americans in the other, drawing parallels between two groups that have been subject to cultural and political repression.

Dan L. Smith listening to Tibetan chants.

In "Blossom," Ai fills the utilitarian fixtures in several Hospital wards with fragile porcelain bouquets.

Ceramic flowers 

These flowers are not manufactured and uniform.
They are hand-formed and fantastical.
It is really delightful to see these lovely forms in such an ugly setting, but the message is mysterious. It can be seen as symbolically offering comfort to the imprisoned, as one would send a bouquet to a hospitalized patient. It may also refer to the famous Hundred Flowers Campaign of 1956, a brief period of tolerance for free expression. Perhaps it says that hope flowers in the most unlikely settings.

The Dining Hall of the Cellhouse has an installation called "Yours Truly." It is a follow-through on the LEGO piece depicting political activists. Its purpose is to allow visitors to send messages to the activists of their choice. But again, Ai doesn't make it easy. For each person, there is a postcard featuring some lovely graphic design. To figure out the correct postcard for the person you wish to address, you must go to a notebook that pairs the LEGO portrait with the appropriate postcard. I felt like sending a big FU to Snowden, but I let it pass.

On the other end of the Cellhouse, one block of cells features a sound installation  called "Stay Tuned," consisting of music, poetry, and speeches by activists who have been detained for the expression of their beliefs. Selections vary from a 51-minute speech by Martin Luther King, Jr. to a 4 1/2-minute song by a Chilean singer named Victor Jara, to a 2-minute song called "Virgin Mary, Put Putin Away (Punk Prayer) by Pussy Riot from Russia.

Cells with stools for listening.
Internet grab
One of the poems seemed particularly moving and universal to me. It is by Iranian Ahmad Shamlu (1925-2000), a Persian poet and journalist and a member of the intellectual opposition under the Shah. Here's a sample:

In this dead-end street
they smell your breath
lest, God forbid,
you've said I love you.
They sniff at your heart—these are strange times, my dear
—and they flog love
by the side of the road at the barrier.
Love must be hidden at home in the closet.

Songbird kebab
roasts over flames of lily and jasmine.
These are strange times, my dear.
The devil, drunk on victory, feasts at our funeral.
God must be hidden at home in the closet.

By the time I got through these art installations, I was well and truly ready to escape from Alcatraz, and so thankful that I could.

At Alcatraz there are guard houses at every turn.
No one ever escaped and lived to tell of it.
Here comes the ferry! Yay!

Unlike the prisoners of yore, tourists have a built-in escape.

There are other ways to look at Alcatraz. The historical angle: First established as a Union fort during the Civil War, and subsequently employed as a military prison and then as a high-security federal prison; after it was decommissioned in the 1960s, some Native American tribes occupied the island to call attention to the abuse and neglect of their people. The prison structures are so old and deteriorated by now that they have lost their threatening aspect; Alcatraz is like a ghost town. If you're interested in historical criminals, you can use your tour to study those who ended up here.

The natural angle: the island is a nearly solid chunk of rock, quite handsome, fine-grained stone. Surprisingly quite a lot of vegetation grows there in gardens established by families of the staff and now maintained by a corps of dedicated volunteers. There is no shoreline to explore; the island is a solid hunk of rock. Usually access is allowed to more extensive gardens, but when we were there, nesting seagulls had caused the path to be closed.

It's clear why the prison was finally abandoned in 1963. Although the site's isolation give it security, it would be difficult to maintain. Because of the solid rock, there was no sewage system. Water must have been a problem, and all supplies had to be brought in.

The vegetation appears to grow right out of solid rock.
Cheerful sight in a grim place.
You could go for the natural setting or for the history, but Ai Weiwei's exhibit adds meaning and beauty to the prison tour.

There is no surcharge for the art exhibit. When you buy your ticket for the ferry it includes the usual prison tour with "@Large" thrown in. The optimal time to tour the prison would be during this exhibit, which is scheduled to close April 26, 2015.

To order tickets online (a good idea) go to this website: Alcatraz.

There is a parking lot on Bay Street near Pier 33, the one for the Alcatraz ferry, but parking costs $35 for the day, as much as the tour itself. You can pay with your charge card.

By the way I got this in-depth background from the website of the foundation which sponsored the exhibit: FOR-SITE. It includes photos of every installation, recordings of all the poetry, music, and speeches, and interpretive commentary. This exhibit is an example of conceptual art, which means that its meaning is more important that its appearance, so the more you learn, the more you appreciate it.

The exhibit enhances the prison tour so much that I propose it be kept in place indefinitely.