At the end of 2019

The New Art Examiner has just posted a new issue that looks back at 2019. Included is my review of Nirmal Raja’s thoughtful exhibition that closed in December at The Alice Wilds here in Milwaukee. It was a beautiful installation of work that explores place, boundaries and connections, process, and the impossibility of control, among other things. Although I am always sad to see a good exhibition close, I am excited to see what comes next for this inquisitive and engaging artist.

The temporary nature of gallery display, coupled with publication deadlines, requires writing about exhibitions that have already closed. This is so frustrating! To counter the seemingly nonsensical act of post-exhibit reviews, here’s a pitch for a couple of impressive shows to see quick before they disappear:

Tom Uttech: Into the Woods, is at the Museum of Wisconsin Art until January 12, 2020. This is a magical exhibition of work by an artist with a very specific vision. I was familiar with his work from a major acquisition at a former museum. This exhibition put that substantial painting into marvelous context. Accompanied by the artist’s black and white photography, the show includes impressive works from throughout his long career. The variety and consistency of the work are instructive and mesmerizing. This was a difficult exhibition to leave, as there is so much to look at and revel in. Shane McAdams has a wonderful review, but try to get to West Bend and see it, as when will you be able to see all of these canvases and photos together again?

Installation view, “Tom Uttecht: Into the Woods,” at MOWA.

A very different experience is at the Art Institute of Chicago with the exhibition In a Cloud, in a Wall, in a Chair: Six Modernists in Mexico at Midcentury. Also on view until January 12, 2020, this show is fascinating, well-researched, and gorgeously installed. Exploring the collaborative and individual efforts of six artists and designers working in Mexico in the mid-twentieth century, the installation highlights weavings, furniture, sculpture, prints, and photography by Clara Porset, Lola Álvarez Bravo, Anni Albers, Ruth Asawa, Cynthia Sargent, and Sheila Hicks. This is a great opportunity to see some gorgeous work that is rarely shown.

It also brought to mind the wonderful surrealist exhibition, organized a few years ago by the LACMA and the Museo de Arte Moderno, Mexico, In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States. Makes me want to learn more about post-revolutionary Mexico.

What will 2020 bring? Maybe some reading and research about Mexico! But I’m also looking forward to seeing the 2020 Wisconsin Artists Biennial, January 25–March 29, 2020 at MOWA, and finally making it to the Wisconsin Triennial: 2019 before it closes February 16 at MMoCA. So many exhibitions, so little time!

Objects Redux @ Racine Art Museum

Harvey Littleton, Reflections, 1969

The Nov/Dec issue of the New Art Examiner includes my review of the Objects Redux exhibitions, an ambitious project on view at the Racine Art Museum into January 2020.

Lost in the Forest of Arden

Disrupting gender expectations would seem to be an easy task for a play like As You Like It. Reveling in the language of love and flirtation, the action covers secret identities, power grabs, bold set-ups, and dramatic reveals. There is much to be explored here: women disguised as men, courtly denizens presenting as shepherds, conflicted rulers and heirs, strong female bonds, fights, music, poetry, and a forest where exiles leave behind the demands of their former lives.

This year’s production at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival included all of these things, but also offered an expanded interpretation of many roles. The director, Rosa Joshi, has described her interest in the play as centered around the hopefulness it provides in dark times.

With the Forest of Arden as a place of transformation through female leadership, Joshi sees the character of Rosalind as finding her true self through her performance of gender. Describing herself as “text-driven,” by honoring the text but approaching the play with a healthy dose of irreverence, Joshi mentions in an online interview that she is interested in “losing some of the preciousness” in her approach to classical texts. 

I am a fan of approachable Shakespeare. American Players Theater, among others, have been digging into this territory for many years. Unfortunately for the production in Ashland, the “preciousness” is not only lost, but the play is gutted with poorly chopped text, making for awkward passages and non-sensical sequences. An introductory chorus has been inserted to provide background from deleted scenes, and conversations have been cut short or omitted altogether. 

Especially disorienting was the displacement of a key text from relatively early in the play to the conclusion of the performance. Despite a visually stunning presentation, the new placement strips “All the world’s a stage…” of its context and meaning. Although the famous words were beautifully delivered in this production by a group of women, the text is ascribed to a male character. Relocating this passage robbed Rosalind, the main female character, of the play’s closing entreaty, one of the few epilogues in Shakespeare’s plays that is delivered by a woman. This was a confusing choice for a director who is interested in expanding women’s roles in theater.

The casting was fun–finally introducing gay love!–but other than a couple of standout performances, the changes did not add any nuance to the story. Rachel Crowl as Duke Senior was a highlight, presenting a leader who, with grace and generosity, deftly anchored the exiles of the forest. Kate Hurster glowed as Celia, echoing a similar sincerity and generous spirit. Sadly, other characters were difficult to appreciate. The text was so disjointed that many roles were robbed of the words and interactions that usually provide complexity and subtlety for actors to mine. Jaques felt out of context without the lengthy banter around the character’s melancholy state, and Rosalind–a great character with much charismatic potential–was all boldness and bluster, with little variation. As Taylor Leigh Ciambra has described elsewhere, all of the excitement about a gender-bending approach is lost when the production still ends with straight weddings, resolving itself as “another story for the cis/hetero canon.”

I agree with David Templeton that the director’s alterations were “actually working against Shakespeare’s giddy simplicity.” This is a play with a frothy storyline, but it is ripe below the surface, filled with gorgeous language and stinging wit. Some of the pleasure was present in this production, but most was sadly tossed off as sarcasm or edited into oblivion.

Was this a more accessible version, less “precious,” easier to understand for viewers who are new to Shakespeare? Maybe, and I hope seeing it will embolden these fresh viewers to try out another. But I adore this play, and this production put me to sleep. Despite the director’s intentions–including some really interesting ideas about transformational space, female leadership, and power–the end result was a playful romp, sans bite, sans focus, sans beautiful language, sans interest.