Jeff Spevak, Writer

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Category: Visual arts Page 2 of 13

Art, and policing inconvenient truths

Barack Obama, by Kehinde Wiley.

My Friend Sarah, My Friend Jones, My Friend Sue and My Friend Scott have all been recent visitors to the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., where the two most-talked about pieces are of Barack and Michelle Obama. Kehinde Wiley’s portrait of the 44th president depicts him against a backdrop of flora in which Obama and his ornate wood chair seem to floating. Amy Sherald’s First Lady shows Michelle Obama in a gloriously flowing dress of geometric patterns and curiously gray skin, the signature style of Sherald.

The two works are responsible for drawing unprecedented crowds to the museum. It is an emotional experience, My Friends say. The people viewing the paintings are hushed, reverential. I suspect it is not merely the beauty of the art. No, I’m sure they are looking at these portraits and silently realizing what we have lost. The White House is no longer home to these graceful, intelligent, beautiful, 21st-century people.

They see that the White House is no longer a home to truth and beauty.

The Obama portraits – the subjects are relaxed, unique artistic statements – are also a truth that is not generally seen in the traditional, stiff portraits of the high and mighty: False images that demand respect where none is deserved.

After Aretha Franklin died last week, I was watching video of her at a concert sitting at a piano, which she played well, singing “(You Make Made Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” It was breathtaking. The camera moved up to the audience – it looked like they were in The Kennedy Center – and it paused on Barack Obama. He appeared to be brushing away a tear. His humanity was genuine.

I read a lot of history. But I know that it is often wrong. That’s why history is so often re-written. Fiction, and art, is superior to the non-fiction word. Fiction is a true representation of something, even if it is simply the writer’s vision, what he or she sees. Non-fiction can often be a guess. It is not genuine.

Michelle Obama, by Amy Sherald.

No one gave Rudy Giuliani the power to define what truth is, or the right to declare that “truth is not truth” in his now-infamous defense of Donald Trump. No, truth is truth, just as trees are trees. What Giuliani sees is a truth that is obscured, manipulated, taken out of context.

And at that point, it is properly defined as a lie.

We must rescue the concept of truth – the definition even – from the liars. Because it’s only going to get worse. Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and similar social media handmaids of bullshit are already awash in lies, lies that can generally be exposed through a little research or a minor expenditure of common sense. But new “deepfake” technology will soon allow trolls to create falsehoods far more undetectable from the truth. Videos will purport to show Neil Armstrong confessing that images of the moon landings were actually shot in an abandoned warehouse, or Hillary Clinton admitting that, yes, she and Bill really were running a child sex and human trafficking ring out of a pizza restaurant in Washington, D.C.

And these lies will look like the truth. Your choice will be: Do you believe?

You might. Despite indisputable evidence that Barack Obama was born in Hawaii, for years Trump and his Birthers continued to circulate the myth that Obama is a native of Kenya. And many people believe that lie to this day.

Policing the truth. Can it be done? Trump has already offered a solution: His administration will determine truth, it will declare what news outlets are to be believed, and which are “Fake News.”

Donald Trump, by Jim Carrey.

Umm, thanks Donald. You can put your hand down, now. Something about a president who has uttered nearly 4,500 misleading statements or outright lies since taking office, according to a tally being kept by The Washington Post, suggests tasking the government with handing out certificates of truth is not a workable solution.

Trump is not the picture of the public servant who fuels strong democracies. One wonders: Where will Trump’s official portrait hang? As it seems certain his presidency will shake out worse than Watergate, I’m thinking his tangerine image, perhaps one of Jim Carrey’s sketches, might find a home on a cafeteria wall in one of those white-collar, country-club prisons in rural Virginia.

And then, will someone emerge to get us out of this mess? I think that woman or man might be out there.

Senator John McCain died this past weekend, his funeral now a week-long, cross-country event, with 24-hours-a-day tributes on network and cable television. This respect being showered on McCain’s memory must infuriate the small-minded Trump. And these glowing eulogies are a reminder that exceptional leaders can emerge in difficult times. McCain had ideas that didn’t work for a lot of people. Bringing in Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential candidate certainly exacerbated the divide in this country. But in one memorable video clip making the rounds, during his presidential campaign against Obama, we see McCain shutting down the famous Woman in Red who says she’s heard Obama is an Arab. McCain’s comeback wasn’t perfect, as there’s nothing wrong with someone being an Arab, or Muslim, or Jew. But McCain did correct her facts, noting that Obama is a Christian and good family man.

It speaks volumes that Trump was told he is not welcome at McCain’s funeral. And Palin has not been invited. Their inauthentic souls, the fog of untruth that surrounds them, would not be a true picture.

McCain’s insistence on the truth, no matter how convenient the lie might be, is something that’s been lost in the halls of the National Portrait Gallery.

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Persisting in a world of ‘thought-terminating clichés’

Who makes art? And who has the right to make art?

The Rochester Contemporary Art Center’s 6×6 exhibition is a fascinating success story for the gallery. An invitation is extended to everyone to contribute an original piece of art, six inches by six inches square. The tiny works go up on the gallery walls, each on sale for $20, benefitting the gallery. Thousands of pieces, some from other countries, some from professional artists. But most of the art is from Rochester, ranging from professionals to enthusiastic amateurs.

Sarah Long Hendershot is one of the finest singers in the city, her voice is sweet, restrained. Her band, The Jane Mutiny, frequently plays The Little Café. She knows how to tell a story; she’s shared autobiographical pieces on podcasts.

She also owns a 3D laser printer. A tabletop-sized unit that scans and prints images. For this year’s RoCo 6×6, which ran from June into mid-July at the East Avenue gallery, Hendershot combined her artistic eye, storytelling skills and the precision of her laser printer to create a 6×6 out of Scrabble tiles emblazoned with the images of women throughout history who Hendershot considers to be heroes. And with other tiles spelling out: SHE PERSISTED.

The faces of 44 women are on the piece. Here they are:

Eleanor Roosevelt. Coretta Scott King. Maya Angelou. Rosa Parks. Jane Goodall. Aretha Franklin. Indira Gandhi. Billie Holiday. Harriet Tubman. Michelle Obama. Harper Lee. Billie Jean King. Eartha Kitt. Helen Keller. Sacagawea. Toni Morrison. Florence Nightingale. Sarah Breedlove Walker. Louise Slaughter. Malala Yousafzai. Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Marie Curie. Betty Friedan. Nina Simone. Gloria Steinem. Frida Kahlo. Wangari Maathai. Virginia Woolf. Hillary Clinton. Sojourner Truth. Susan B. Anthony. Emma Gonzalez. Coco Chanel. Anne Frank. Joan Baez. Sandra Day O’Connor. Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Sonia Sotomayor. Elena Kagan. Benazir Bhutto. Elizabeth Warren. Shirley Chisholm. Golda Meir. Temple Grandin.

Sarah Long Hendershot

Most of those names you should recognize. Eleanor Roosevelt. Billie Holiday. Some you might have to look up. Temple Grandin is an authority on animal science who used her own struggles with autism to advance understanding of the condition. Emma Gonzalez emerged as a marvelous “Never Again” spokesperson after 17 of her fellow students were killed and 17 more wounded in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shootings earlier this year in Parkland, Florida.

Glowforge, the company that manufactures the laser printer, was so impressed with the piece that it contacted Hendershot, asking if it could use it for on-line adverting. Hendershot said go right ahead.

Immediately, the right-wing art critics began trolling, attacking Glowforge and Hendershot.

Here’s sampling of their words. The language will sound familiar:

Michelle Obama’s accomplishments consist of marrying a man that became President. Not complaining about a piece of wood, but the silly choice of the “human” that made this ugly as hell display. Try working less on your passive aggressive horseshit and try using your brain for yourself next time.

Did a man design and engrave that? Just curious. At least the tech and hardware used to do the engraving, anyway. I tire of seeing feminists trying to take so much credit for nothing. Baseless pride. Ego. Reeks of desperation for validation, and naturally, insecurities. And perhaps a little self-loathing for the fact that women are different from men, but are raised in a libtarded world where they are told they are and have to be equal. I mean, the cognitive dissonance must be outrageous. Its no wonder the vitriol, if you think about. Im just disappointed in women. For wanting credit without merit and without a realistic appreciation for what mens contributions are. Arts and crafts, how totally stereotypically female… and to use modern man-made tech to do it! The irony is painful. But nice work on the art, anyway.

Some one that knows nothing. About these women. Who are totally backwards.

What did Michelle Obama accomplish, other than being married to the first black president? I didn’t realize being married to a person makes you worthy of praise.

Anne Frank didn’t persist either, she was hunted down like a dog and killed by leftist Nazis, go figure.

They demanded: Where is Nancy Reagan?

Sexism, racism, misogyny and “leftist Nazis” aren’t Glowforge’s fight. The company just wants to sell a few laser printers. Within days, Glowforge had taken down the ads featuring Hendershot’s art.

We all have a right to not patronize businesses whose political or business practices are something we find disagreeable. I have a hefty personal list of such companies that will not get my money, including Chick-fil-A, Hobby Lobby, Walmart and virtually all of the corporate pizza manufacturers. At the other end of the argument, there are a few companies that display such a principled and humanistic world view, I can’t help but patronize them. A week after Donald Trump was elected president, Bill Penzey, the founder and CEO of Penzeys Spices, sent an email to a few thousand of his customers. “The open embrace of racism by the Republican Party in this election is now unleashing a wave of ugliness unseen in this country for decades,” he wrote. Penzey’s sentiment had nothing to do with selling jerk seasonings. Although it may have helped, he says, noting an uptick in sales. And Penzey continues to post essays condemning the Trump administration’s policies.

I continue to buy Penzeys Spices. I am a satisfied customer. I recommend the Northwoods spice blend.

Business and art are strange bedfellows. Despite the often-disparate political viewpoints, it is a relationship that can pay off for both, in that business needs art to humanize itself and attract customers, and art can always use a good corporate sponsor.

But it’s a relationship that is also abused.

There is “sense of entitlement,” Hendershot says, readily revealed in the comments by the right-wing critics of her piece. Criticism that relies on familiar, “thought-terminating clichés.”

Art, and free expression, is something that should be put out there for you to make your own judgment. Hendershot made a statement, and perhaps there is room for argument as to her choices of women who persisted.

If you disagree, it’s wrong to try to shut down another person’s voice. That’s what we call Fascism. If it’s a democracy, your reply should be to make your own damn art.

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Two Irishmen’s One Take on Rochester

It’s late Friday afternoon at Veneto, and we’re having dinner with two Irish guys. Traolach Ó Murchú and the less-exotically monikered John Murphy. They’re back in Rochester for the first time since the summer of 2016, a visit that included a Rochester Red Wings game, and now Murphy is offering his impression of American baseball.

“To be honest, I really didn’t know what was going on,” Murphy confesses. Although he did grasp the concept of the “Taco K Man,” where each game a member of the visiting team is selected, and if he strikes out anytime during the game everyone in attendance wins a free taco.

More importantly, Ó Murchú and Murphy knew what was going on with the Veneto menu. Both men ordered wood-fired pizzas, a culinary creation that’s gone international. Italy and Brooklyn step aside, you can get wood-fired pizzas in Ireland. Peat-smoked, I suppose, for the adventurous. As we ate, I got a lesson on Gaelic football and hurling, the latter a sport which I gather is kind of like lacrosse and rugby, in which you can pass the ball backward to a teammate or flatten the guy on the other team if he hangs onto the ball too long. That’s the part Americans would understand. Flatten the other guy.

Ó Murchú and Murphy had returned to Rochester for the showing of their documentary at the One Take Film Fest. Photo City, the story of Rochester’s deep connection to photography, and the impact of the collapse of Eastman Kodak on the city.

I wish I’d had time to see more films at the three-day One Take Film Fest, a lineup of documentaries shown mostly at The Little Theatre. As time allowed, with a culture-choked weekend here that included what has quickly evolved into the most-meaningful holiday of the year – for me anyway – Record Store Day, I was able to take in only two films. And three cocktail parties.

I have my priorities.

One of those films was The King, an exploration of the Elvis Presley phenomena. Most of the audience seemed to approve of The King, a patchwork of people’s observations on Elvis, loosely tied together by various celebrities taking a cross-country ride in Elvis’ – or what I assume was one of Elvis’ many – Rolls Royce sedans.

The scene where the car breaks down with the singer-songwriter Mary Gauthier on board is kind of representative of how I felt about The King. I’m not sure what I got out of actors Ashton Kutcher and Ethan Hawke sharing their thoughts on Presley. I think they were little kids, at best, even during Presley’s slow fade into Vegas parody. And maybe the producers thought that allowing newsman Dan Rather to present an overview of the Elvis phenomena added the proper gravitas. But it all just seemed… unnecessary. We know the story. Actually, the amusing comments by actor Mike Myers, with his distant Canadian perspective, seemed most incisive.

The message of The King seemed to be: Decay. We’re watching the talented, handsome rock star as he’s corrupted by what he sought most, stardom. That story of downward spiral is an overly familiar one. But connecting it to the decay of the country itself, through cutaways to Donald Trump campaigning for the presidency, and then being sworn in, is a real reach.

Yet there are some parallels. Greed plays a role in both stories. And racism is evident.

Cultural appropriation is a tricky question, it depends on how the culture’s being used. Racism presents itself in The King as white America’s acceptance of black music only when performed by a white man. Yet we shouldn’t condemn Elvis for that any more than we should criticize a black person for playing classical music. The pursuit of any muse should be open to everyone. The economic exploitation of culture? That’s a different story. As The King points out, at every fork in the road of Presley’s career, his manager Col. Tom Parker chose the most-lucrative path.

These questions become much-more troubling when considering Trump’s calculated greed and racism. Especially when  compounded by other factors playing into the downward spiral of the White House. It is disease that runs far deeper, and is more complex, and more insidious, than what happened at Graceland.

Photo City is about decay as well. People in Rochester you may or may not know, talking about Kodak’s glory days. And then the decline. Photographer Max Schulte is prominent early on, ruminating on photojournalism. Frank de Blase and his wife Deb Jones are in the living room of their home, where Frank is shooting photos of a nude woman, offering hilarious and self-deprecating philosophies of cheesecake. Ó Murchú and Murphy follow Rochester photographers into crumbling neighborhoods and homeless shelters and to a tent city beneath a downtown bridge underpass, recording images of destitute Americans eating pizza.

They interview Joseph Morinelli and his father in an empty parking lot outside of one of the now-silent Kodak buildings. Joseph Sr. worked there for decades. Joseph Jr. plays guitar in Joywave, a Rochester rock band that tours the world. Wherever it goes, the band makes sure people understand it’s not just from New York, but from Rochester, and all that comes with that. All five of the guys in Joywave have connections to Kodak through their families. Joywave writes songs influenced by Kodak, and growing up within sight of those smokestacks, in homes that depended on Kodak paychecks.

Ó Murchú and Murphy aren’t intrusive, they gently back into the story of each character. At one point they’re talking to a guy. Only after a few moments does the audience understand that this is Steve Sasson. Hey! He’s the Kodak employee who created much of the technology that became digital photography. During breaks in his work day. Digital killed the film industry. But it’s not Sasson’s fault. He showed his new ideas to his bosses. As he says in Photo City, they didn’t ask: How? They asked: Why?

There are images of racism, yes. Local filmmaker Carvin Eisen discusses that in the film, and the Rochester riots of 1964. And he was at the post-film talkback the first night of the showing at The Little, asking a hard question: Was it really necessary to show a photo of a black woman, lynched, dangling from a railroad bridge over a river, the bridge lined with dozens of white people celebrating their accomplishment?

Yes, Ó Murchú and Murphy said. The photo wasn’t exploitation. Photography is a serious art, it speaks uncomfortable truths. In fact, The King showed two different images of black people who had been lynched. Those photos are a shocking truth. Black Lives Matter has a much longer history than Ferguson, Missouri.

The tone of Photo City is often depressing. Yet it closes on an unexpectedly upbeat note, as hundreds of the city’s residents gather downtown one evening to be a part of “The Big Picture.” A photo of Kodak tower lit at night.

Is Rochester a photographer’s town? It is “generally true,” Murphy says. But that picture is evolving.

“It’s really changed in the 18 months since we shot the film,” Murphy says as the wood-fired pizzas disappeared. “A lot of the buildings, they’re kinda gone. Kodak has that big MCC sign on it now. And we’ve noticed a lot more people downtown, just walking around.”

The two filmmakers had never been to Rochester until they made a film about it. Murphy said they were expecting to find people expressing anger and frustration at Kodak. Yet, “Everyone we met was incredibly proud of the town.”

“The more people you meet,” Ó Murchú adds, “you get a better sense of the city.”

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