Anatomy, Art, and Other Things

It’s been over 20 years since I was an office temp the second time around, in San Francisco, trying to stay employed between graduate degrees. I worked in an academic department at UCSF, a fledgling art historian adrift at a medical school. Whenever possible I would take long lunches and flee to the library, eating on the plaza that was dramatically perched on the edge of a hill above the city. There was also refuge to be found in the rare books room where I squeaked out time to look at 19th century artist’s anatomies in the collection.

A few years ago I found myself again looking at historical anatomies, this time in Wisconsin. My job had stagnated and I was yet again casting about, trying to imagine what other work I could pursue. Artist’s anatomies are apparently my touchstone, a place I return to, like a prodigal daughter, when I find myself at a dead end in other pursuits. They are where I go looking for reassurance, back to square one, in search of intellectual re-ignition. Why anatomies? Maybe because they are the traditional building blocks, along with drawing, in 19th-century American and European academic art. Maybe, having studied the work of Thomas Eakins, I was never able to adequately resolve for myself the exaggerated importance of (or intensity of focus on) anatomy within his artistic process and teaching. Maybe it’s just because the works are visually engaging, intellectually challenging, gorgeous, difficult, and just really complicated.

Artistic anatomy surfaced for me again last week, unexpected but welcome, during the unveiling of the parade of Buckys around town. This fundraiser involved the work of lots of artists, and has met with mixed reviews–some cheerleading and others attempting to put it all into perspective. In the midst of perhaps more impactful happenings in the city, I took advantage of a particularly gorgeous spring morning and attended the presentation of a rather unusual incarnation, Visible Bucky, by Phil Salamone.

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Phil Salamone, Visible Bucky (back view)

Phil is an academically trained artist. With the help of Sarah Gerg, he spent about 450 hours painting this sculpture. It’s completely thrilling to see an artist have so much fun using traditional methods. Placing the work in front of Science Hall is an especially important nod to history, as the building was the former home of the UW-Madison Department of Anatomy.

Visible Bucky makes me think of Jason Freeny’s work, as both of these artists are referencing European artistic anatomy traditions in their pop-culture creations.

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Jason Freeny, Spongebob Anatomy (on display at the Safety-Kleen Gallery One, Elgin Community College, 2015).

There are many artists who have been delving into the rich visual culture of anatomy studies. For some contemporary examples, see Street Anatomy. Founded by Vanessa Ruiz, this website is an amazing resource for contemporary anatomical expressions.

The anatomized Bucky reminded me of my explorations of the incredible anatomy materials that are available in the Kohler Art, Special Collections, and Ebling Historical libraries right here on the UW-Madison campus. Occupying an intriguing intersection of art and science, the following works are occasionally on display, but all are accessible with an appointment in the gems that are the campus library collections (19th century onward, there are much more from earlier periods too) :

These large format plates display an écorché figure, not in an anatomist’s theater or on a dissection table like in earlier texts, but posed in a landscape. Produced posthumously, a memento mori to the author appears at the figure’s feet, along with a cityscape (Florence?) on the horizon. The skeleton, pictured in the same pose but without the landscape setting, has surprising details in a fleshy ear and nose.

Melding classical sculpture into idealized, composite, anatomized models, like with the head of the Belvedere Apollo, these large, intricately illustrated pages make an explicit connection between anatomical studies and the history of art. The frontispiece includes a funny little scene below a bust of Minerva/Athena: in a group of naked men (putti?) performing a dissection, one of the figures holds his nose. Some things never change.

  • Piedad Bonnett (1951-current), Libro de anatomía (Bogotá, Colombia : Alonso Garcés Ediciones, Marcela Caldas Editora y Ediciones Arte Dos Gráfico, 2006).

In a small book of poems enhanced with anatomically-inspired images, blood and bone, muscle fiber and tissue convey a fragile intimacy in contrast to the musky, corporeal references of the written word.

An invocation of scientific visual culture, Baskin’s portfolio references the fascination and underlying horror of anatomical dissection. With angels of death, cadavers with dark open recesses, and bony appendages wrapped and unraveling, these drawings present a powerful, beautiful, and disturbing homage to the traditions of imaging anatomy.

After thinking again about these works, I wonder if maybe Visible Bucky is actually a hybrid. As a badger he might be related to the horses that were studied by artists and scientists in early photography:

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Or comparative anatomy, like the mare Josephine, represented in a bronze cast of a écorché, originally modeled in plaster, from the studio of Thomas Eakins:

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  • Thomas Eakins (American, 1844 – 1916), Écorché: Relief of a Horse (Josephine)modeled ca. 1882; cast 1979. Bronze with brown patina mounted on wooden plaque, 23 3/4 x 21 1/2 x 3 3/4 in. Chazen Museum of Art, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Gift of Sue Kessler Feld, Class of 1969, and Stuart P. Feld, 2010.53.

Visible Bucky, standing in front of Science Hall, brings me back again to the beginning, to Eakins’ Philadelphia studio and his lifelong obsession with dissection and anatomy. The imagery is persistent, it runs through academic art and contemporary painting, Sponge-Bob and poetry, grad school and work life. It reflects a desire to understand how things function–the mechanisms and the operations below the surface–and it underlies considerations of the ideal and the real, in the visual world and in lived experience.

Anatomy is a metaphor for me, for where it all begins (the intellectual journey at least), but it’s actually where it all ends, too. In our physicality, in our bodies, where is our humanity located? What is the connection between the system and the intellect? If we can fully comprehend the functions, can we actually create wonder?

Bucky is a powerful presence. On that bright sunny morning a few days ago, I did not expect a painted badger to ignite a spark. And now he is feeding a flame. Go Bucky.

 

Celebrating Connection

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Lucas Koehler Combo, Union Hair Parlor, ALL Jazz Fest 2018, Schenk’s Corners.

On top of a recent realization about some professional fails, mostly surrounding communication and an inability to see clearly, the other day I took 10 minutes and three trips down the hall to print one shipping label. This was yet another clear failure: too much time to complete a (usually) simple task.

As failures go–especially when compared to the rest of the day’s realizations–the label printing was relatively low-impact: a time-waster and frustrating, but that’s about the extent of the damage. Luckily the day ended with some local jazz: #thebestjazzisinhairsalons fully expresses the restorative, rejuvenating, community experience that provided me with much-needed perspective and release after a difficult week.

Of course there are other failures, some of remarkable scale, with a much much larger impact that can’t be remedied by jazz, no matter how awesome the music. A highlight of my difficult week was the opportunity to hear from someone who headed up one such spectacle, Jim Lasko of the now-closed RedMoon Theater. In a conversation with the Chazen’s director, Amy Gilman, Jim talked about the social impulse of his theater work which, at RedMoon, took the form of taking theater into the neighborhoods and streets of Chicago, in his words, “engineering new ways of being together.” The motivation was to make theater more accessible and bring performance to bigger, different audiences.

But Jim was not at the art museum to talk about street theater. He was invited because of what has been identified as a massive fail: the Great Chicago Fire Festival of 2014. I won’t rehash the story here, as it has been amply covered elsewhere–Jim has even talked and written about the event and the aftermath. I am more interested in his process of recovery, how he moved forward, and his perspective on creative work.

Jim talked of theater as a living activity, he compared it to a group jumping out of an airplane. With opening night the equivalent of the ground quickly approaching, the group has to work together intensely, and fast, to prevent disaster. The joy and excitement is in that process of making, of attempting and failing and trying again. It is thrilling, it is inspirational. We make art because we have to, we are driven to keep attempting it over and over. We fail every day, which is an important thing to remember as we get up and try again. But aside from the daily face-plants, in the wake of massive fail, what makes us pick up the pieces and try it again?

After the closure of RedMoon, Jim says he talked to many people about his next steps. He talked about failure to corporate groups, and he returned to work on an unfinished PhD. Recently he teamed up to open a new maker and gathering space called GuildRow.

After the presentation I was able to ask Jim about the recovery, the aftermath. He had talked about it in personal terms in the conversation on stage, but I wanted to know how his team responded, and how they, as a group, recovered after hitting the ground so hard. After some thought he revealed something about the theater company that was striking: he said they worked through the difficulties because they loved each other. A company like RedMoon that was dedicated to bringing theater outside, into neighborhoods, and making it participatory, this company was comprised of intensely committed individuals who fiercely loved their work. They ran on a personal devotion to shared goals and to each other. This is not, of course, every organization. But it seems completely reasonable, maybe even necessary, for a non-profit street theater group.

I am intrigued that Jim emphasized the personal in his presentation. He was not there to talk about failure. His comprehension is contrary to the corporate lingo approach to failure which, through it’s focus on venture capital, minimizes and even erases the personal–the pain and suffering, the lived experience, the frustration, anger, and confusion. But in Jim’s telling was a sense of a community, not only within the active theater company, but following the disaster. He described turning to his personal community to assess and advise, to consider and imagine. This was a way of doing important individual work, human work. It is restorative, it is personal, and it is vitally important.

Which takes me to a different theater project that I was lucky to witness recently, here in Madison. Lines: A Theatre LILA Invention is a collaboratively written play that gives voice to five female playwrights of color. The play was a complex intertwining of stories, with actors playing multiple roles. The beauty of the play was not only in the acting, the staging, and the direction, but in the stories that were told. These are voices that are rarely heard in theater: beauty shop conversations, playground interactions, hopscotch, hope for the future, lovers’ arguments, the daily dangers of being a woman, black, lesbian, latina, muslim, young, or even middle-aged.

It was a play that conveyed the personal, but also emphasized the importance of connections and the potential of community, not only in how the play was created or what was represented on stage, but in the conversations with the audience that followed. This is the same force behind Jim Lasko’s theatrical efforts: a desire to connect. In moving performance outside into the street, or by collaboratively developing a script with other writers of color, these efforts expand the reach of theater. They breathe in deeply and open their arms, inviting more people into their embrace. They grow the audience.

Although connections can be uncomfortable, as with some of the questions that were asked during the talkback after the Lines performance, or in the direct personal challenges that were issued during the play, they are essential for the success of art making. I imagine that for some people, like those who enjoy the anonymity of a dark theater, RedMoon’s street performances would have been quite difficult. But connection takes many shapes. Engagement may be a buzzword, but we use it for a reason. Lasting impressions–wonder–happens when people are able to connect, with each other, with art, with music, with something outside of themselves.

These theater efforts are so different, yet both relied on the very personal dedication of their members. Understanding this devotion and commitment transforms notions of success and failure. A fizzled public art event is insignificant when the connections created through it, or the exhibition of an artist’s work, a collaborative theater event, or even a jazz celebration (pictured above), are prioritized. Instead of focusing on failure, maybe it’s is more important to foreground engagement and connection, and their restorative, sustaining potential. Who did you connect with today? We fail daily, but so do we achieve. Connecting every day, staying engaged, that’s the hard part. But when it happens? Wow.

 

All Quiet in Austin, Despite the Noise of Color

Dan Ramirez has ruined how I look at art. And by “ruined,” I mean “demolished.” How could I have known that working with him would lead me to this embarrassing point where I find myself saying, aloud, “I love minimalism.” It’s horrifying.

Just look at the exhibition currently on view the Blanton Museum of Art, Form into Spirit: Ellsworth Kelly’s Austin (February 18, 2018 – April 29, 2018). Organized in support of the opening of Austin, Kelly’s building/installation on the UT campus, the exhibition is all of the things a university art museum exhibition should be: informative, interesting, nicely installed, well-researched, etc. It is also astoundingly beautiful.

Yes, gorgeous. Which I didn’t expect. And although this is probably a career-killing thing to admit, I was not mesmerized by the color in the exhibition (I know, it’s Ellsworth Kelly! How can anyone not be astounded by his exploration of color?). Instead, it was the black and white prints and sketches that took away my ability to think clearly.

The prints are large, and in a brave and aggressive decision, hung 3-high by 8-across. Although this arrangement makes them nearly impossible to see individually, and difficult to appropriately light, it does emphasize the expressive power of the group as a whole. The repetition of the black and white forms, with such a deep blackness of the ink on the paper, along with the scale of their printing, makes the group quietly coercive (I could go on about the prints, but it would be far better to look to the important work done for a 2013 exhibition and publication at MMOCA here in Madison). Then there are sketches of the stations of the cross, all black and white, all concentrated power in a small format.

This force is continued by the upright sculptural totems that are grouped nearby. Towering and simple in form, their differing media (redwood, metal) make no difference in their individual ability to convey solemnity and presence.

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The meditative and quiet are continuous throughout the exhibition and–outside, down the path, through the enormous wood doors–into the work Austin, where the black and white forms are softened as they are translated into marble, and color becomes light that falls over the walls of the building. A redwood totem stands over the space, not lit but still dominating from one of the alcoves. The quiet, the repeated forms, the simplicity of shape, all create a foundation to support all of that color play. It’s a completely mesmerizing structure.

(My images here are terrible. For better views see articles in the NYT, Architectural Digest, Texas Monthly, or ArtNet News. Or, for a more in-depth discussion about the background of the structure, see the 2012 lecture–from before the work was realized in Texas–at the Haus der Kunst by Carter Foster, then at the Whitney, now at the Blanton).

Of course I think of Dan Ramirez’ Twenty Contemplations prints. The repeated black and white, the sense of space and depth that each artist captured using a restricted palette and carefully honed forms, the feel of the paper saturated in ink. I’m skipping over the subject matter here—stations of the cross, devotional music—but I’m less interested in the specific iconography. It’s a very noisy world, and to be in a place where the mind quiets and the world opens, well, it’s just doesn’t happen very often.

Get yourself to Austin.

 

Stories

Another play-reading at APT, the last of this year’s Winter Words series. A beautifully written fable about the power of naming, the force of metaphor. A woman learns. She farms, she helps to birth foals, she takes labor into her own hands, she controls her name and thus uses language to define herself and her world.

A friend sends me a story and asks for feedback. In our discussion I encourage him to practice his storytelling skills. So he does, at a local story slam. He performs wonderfully, taking third place. He has written for years, has conducted interviews, and even participated in a writing workshop as he works to shape a long and complex personal story into a book. But this is his first ever outing on a story-telling stage. I guess I am now a coach.

And this week I am fresh off a professional development program. OK, not just any program. THE program in my museum world: the Getty Leadership Institute NextGen program.

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I should be elated. Of course I am thrilled that I was able to participate, thankful for the support. But I am also stunned, mostly by the sheer volume of the words that have poured down upon me over the last month. Words and ideas like wave after wave, and even two days after completing the program I still feel as if I am swamped and drowning. It almost doesn’t matter where I try to start swimming, I am too far out to make progress in any direction. One of my cohort wrote that she is still trying to figure out what in the hell happened to her over the onsite week. I inhabit this same space.

It is the space where words are not yet complete. They are forming, but they are still sharp and the ideas they communicate have dangerous edges. I tried to use some of the words today and they felt hard in my mouth, they came out rough, I had to work to make them not cut. What the hell happened? I have so much to say but no words for any of it yet.

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It’s like the bones that are excavated at La Brea. They are lifted out of their encompassing mire, then soaked and carefully cleaned. The darkened solution is strained to capture every seedpod and insect part that was caught during the same era as the bones of the animal that perished, trapped in tar. I need time to sift through that debris, to examine the minutiae, to discover what corollary life exists.

The words are the tools that scrape away the accretions, they transform a mass of tar into a trove of scientific wonders. Like knives into fowl, words transform the world. What will be found, what will be created, when the bird becomes food, when mammoth is transformed into fossil? What happens when my friend learns to be comfortable on stage telling his story, or when I get command of mi idioma, mi lengua? Necesito controlar mi lengua. Y luego, para usarlo.

 

 

The River

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Kukuli Velarde, Sta. Chingada: The Perfect Little Woman (detail), 2006. Private Collection.

Last week I attended a play-reading at American Players Theater in Spring Green, WI. Their Winter Words performances are few in number, but held in the small theater these evening events feel like super-secret meetings of an artistic Justice League—heartfelt, dazzling, and sincere. The readings are simply staged and completely engaging, as they are followed by talkbalks with the audience, cast, and director. They are a wonderful and rare experience.

This episode featured a small cast and the director Robert Ramirez presenting The River Bride, a graceful and gorgeous play by Marisela Treviño Orta. As just a reading—no set, costumes, or larger theater magic—the words and story were in the spotlight, all achingly beautiful, devastating, yet hopeful. I’m not sure if I care to ever see this play staged, as this reading by these actors has taken up residence in my mind and promises to stay for a very long time.

Driving back through the night along dark country roads, the carload of theater-goers analyzed the play. Some agreed with the director, that the main focus of the fable was the failure to seize the day and act upon dreams and desires. I was convinced that the selfishness and greed of one character drove the story, impacting all the other characters. But I have changed my mind. I see now that the heart of the drama is indeed a failure of nerve, of effort, of voice, and specifically, how such hesitation clears a damaging path for the overly ambitious.

And here is where I relate a beautiful, poetic play to a business book.

In my workplace, we have a new boss who brings contemporary management tools and techniques into a museum setting. Every day is refreshing, yet also challenging. Just one example: the staff has read and discussed a few chapters of Kim Scott’s Silicon Valley new hope rah rah manifesto, Radical Candor. Reading a management book in no way approaches the joyful aesthetic experience of hearing Treviño Orta’s play read aloud, but these texts have an important commonality: they both consider what happens when individuals seize too much, too often; the damage and destruction that result from an imbalance of power when aggression is not checked consistently—and, most importantly, the mediating potential for persistent assertiveness.

Is it wrong to hold onto the heartache that is at the center of The River Bride, to utilize a fictional loss as a spur to action, at work? To transform Helena and her hesitation into a warning about professional silence and complicity? Can poetry be combined with the dictates of management? Carpe diem? “Care personally, challenge directly” is Scott’s mantra to transform relationships, and thus the workplace. And I am beginning to see some truth there. Balancing personal ambitions with candid feedback and daily responsibilities is challenging, but actually made easier if you care about what you are doing.

A fable set in the Amazon informs activities in a midwestern office. This is the reason I work with visual art, why I see plays and movies, read poetry, and yes, even business management books: to better understand life, its conflicts, complexities, and incongruities. To drive for hours through the dark night, talking about language and people and meaning and motivation, then discover new angles on these same issues in the bright light of the workplace, the experience of the play is extended, the words sing again and again. This is on my mind as I prepare for a truly exciting professional development experience. I see that my office is on the edge of a river, filled with the calls of the birds and the clicking of the dolphins, home to much noisy, productive, difficult, and promising work.

Looking Back to Michael Kenna and the Rouge Plant

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Back in 2001 I worked on an exhibition for the University of Michigan Museum of Art, Albert Kahn: Inspiration for the Modern. I was a curatorial assistant at the time, tasked with helping the exhibition curator, who happened to be the chair of the architecture department and a transplant from England. He did not own a car, which was a serious cause for suspicion in a place like Michigan, home of the Big 3 auto makers.

My job turned out to be mostly driving the curator into Detroit for research visits. In the days before social media and smart phones, I navigated through an unfamiliar city trying to listen as the curator spun out his ideas for the exhibition. At the Kahn firm’s office we unrolled architectural plans and opened tubes of blueprints that were stored in hot closets under stairwells next to mechanical rooms. We visited the Detroit Institute of Art, looking at the Rivera murals and learning from the curators about the slim chance we had of borrowing from Mexican collections for the exhibition. We drove around looking for Kahn and Ford buildings: the General Motors and Fisher buildings, Highland Park.

The exhibition presented some technical quandries—how best to display large architectural drawings? There were logistical challenges—we had to abandon hope of including a painting by Frida Kahlo, as the loan negotiations would have been too complex and time consuming. But we were able to incorporate some gorgeous Sheeler photos, drawings, and paintings, some Lozowick prints, and some of Michael Kenna’s Rouge photographs.

Because of the work I had done for the exhibition–and maybe to make up for the unexpected driving services—I had a short essay included in the exhibition catalogue, my first published curatorial essay. I chose to write on Kenna’s images of the Rouge Plant, as they are beautiful, mysterious, and striking.

It is exciting to see that these works have been recently revived. They are the subject of a new book, Michael Kenna: Rouge, by my old boss at UMMA, now director at the Princeton Art Museum, James Steward. Princeton has the entire series of 120 gelatin silver photographs that Michael Kenna shot at the Rouge. They are on display RIGHT NOW, but if, like me you can’t get to NJ anytime soon, you can get a preview of the entire series of these small, powerful, wonderous images on their website. Check it out.

Now I just need to figure out how to get ahold of the new book…

 

 

What’s next?

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This question was asked of me the very night the exhibition opened. I sat at dinner and a gallerist I had never met, a friend of the artist, asked me, “What’s next?” Then, in what I took to be a kindly spirit, he proceeded to suggest all sorts of projects that he had been considering. I took it as a nice gesture, an attempt to be helpful.

This is an appropriate question for many aspects of my life right now, especially–as the gallerist intended it–in relation to my curatorial aspirations. It could also relate to, say, my house, or my ancient car, my general career goals, my involvement in a casual writing group, or my relationship with my romantic partner. There is a certain pressure, or expectation at least, that, with this exhibition opened (and closed), the catalogue published, the works now in transit back to their generous owners, I will know exactly what to segue into, and the steps of that move, as if I have a grandly detailed to-do list in my head and am checking off items with precise regularity. This is–surprisingly?–not the case.

Instead I have a well of a brain that holds ideas deep within its waters. These things take time, not only to form, but to develop, to grow, to complicate, to sort out and make sense of. It is a slow process mostly, but sometimes it moves suddenly, fast connections made, and then things fly.

But I’m not there yet. I’m still making a clearing, a calm space where I can peer into the depths and consider what is swimming in the cold water. I have some cleaning to do, catch-up from the last two years of focused work. 

So, first is the clearing out, including installing other amazing exhibitons. Then the quiet and the weighing of options, the balancing of plans, the plotting of activity. This deliberation takes time, it is impossible to say how long. But that’s how creative work functions, at its own speed. So for now I wait and clear the desk, so it will be ready for whatever is next.