Free thinking at UNC this week

I’ve been blabbing a lot in various places about Carolina Performing Arts’ crazy big season focusing on Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, which is coming up on its 100th birthday. The academic centerpiece of this series is a multi-topic conference in Chapel Hill this Thursday-Sunday, October 25-28. An impressive array of scholars and critics will present papers and discuss just about any aspect of The Rite and its influence that you could possibly wish. There’s a ticketed opening performance, but other than parking, the rest is all FREE, and you don’t even have to register. See the schedule at I’m looking at Mary Davis (Fashion Institute of Technology) “Styling Le Sacre: The Rite’s Role in French Fashion” from Friday’s Session 1, and SESSION 3: DANCING THE RITE AFTER ITS PREMIERE, with several dance historians and critics.

A Visual Feast: Still-lifes, beautifully arranged at the NC Museum of Art

Gustave Courbet, Hollyhocks in a Copper Bowl, 1872, oil on canvas, 23 5/8 x 19 1/4 in., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Bequest of John T. Spaulding, Photograph © 2012 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

You could eat some of the paintings with a spoon–preferably a silver spoon, or, even better, a silver-gilt spoon. The North Carolina Museum of Art is opening an eye-gratifying exhibition of great paintings and luxe objects this weekend in STILL-LIFE MASTERPIECES:  A VISUAL FEAST FROM THE MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS, BOSTON. It will remain on view through Jan. 13, 2013, but don’t wait. You will probably want second helpings. I was going to show you some pictures–including one of the perfect spoon–but my photos have been disallowed.

The NCMA’s fine curator John Coffey eschewed a chronological arrangement of the work, which at the press preview he called “often the most boring way you can arrange pictures.” He and the other curators instead looked for “conversations” and “correspondences” between works and across time and geography.

“We wanted to declare our eclecticism right up front,” said Coffey, pointing to a 16th century painting of the Vanitas type that opens the show–right next to a Georgia O’Keefe sunflower head in brilliant yellows. The two paintings elucidate still-life painting’s long and wandering road through history, as do many other juxtapositions in the exhibition. Unless it was making a sermon (vanity, all is vanity…death comes in the end), for centuries, still-life just got no respect.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Mixed Flowers in an Earthenware Pot, circa 1869, oil on paperboard mounted on canvas, 25 1/2 x
21 3/8 in., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Bequest of John T. Spaulding, Photograph © 2012 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Cezanne changed that, and there is one fine Cezanne to look at here, well-positioned next to a glowing Stanton MacDonald-Wright (can’t show you that, either). Suddenly still-life was about art–about composition, color, design, geometry. It didn’t have to be pretty–witness the Braque–but sometimes it was not only pretty but downright beautiful, like the wonderful, exuberant Renoir. You can feel the softness of those asters over the leathery zinnias, and what a play of color!

The exhibition also includes a remarkable Franz Kline from 1946 that will knock your socks off. I wanted to show you, but you’ll have to go if you want to see his energy not in bold black but in clear oranges and yellows. I loved looking from this to David Bates’ 1993 Magnolia, with its fecund energy and sensuous thick oil paint (look into the central area, and you’ll find the detail I wanted to show you). It is also neat to look at it with a fancy Tiffany silver pitcher in the foreground, its elegant arching handle echoing some of Bates’ curves (yep, had a photo).

Some of my personal favorites are two lovely Fantin-Latours, one of peaches, one of roses. If you want to see how a painter works this kind of magic, study these closely (no, I can’t show you those exquisite brush strokes). Look at the peach and its shadow, and the knife beside it; then look across to the video of fruit decomposing. Remarkably similar! There are no hard edges on Fantin-Latour’s convincing objects.

The show winds up with a large William Sharp that curator Coffey called “the still-life equivalent of Albert Bierstadt’s Yosemite,” across from a small picture curator Dennis Weller called “a perfect painting.” He tried to backtrack on that, but his heart wasn’t in it. It is perfect, a little 17th century jewel of careful placement and absorbed observation of light’s interaction with shape and surface.

There are valid legal and contractual issues regarding the reproduction of images, even in a review. It is not quite like quoting text. But what a shame. If I saw the luscious bits I was planning to post here, I’d be off to the NCMA like a shot.

This is a ticketed exhibition, in the old building; you get a better deal if you buy a double ticket, and take in the really excellent Munch print exhibition at the same time. If you know when you want to go, especially around a holiday, purchasing tickets in advance would be smart.

Jan Jansz. van de Velde, Still Life with Goblet and Fruit, 1656, oil on canvas, 14 3/4 x 13 3/4 in., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Anonymous gift, by exchange, Photograph © 2012 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Preview: THE PAPER HAT GAME returns, to Manbites Dog Theater

THE PAPER HAT GAME plays deliciously with scale in several media. Photo: Eric Monson.

This Thursday, October 18, will see the opening of Torry Bend’s fascinating toy theater/puppetry piece, THE PAPER HAT GAME, at Manbites Dog Theater. Bend first produced the work last year in Duke’s Shaefer Lab Theater (she is Assistant Professor of the Practice in the Duke Department of Theater Studies), and I was wowed by the fabulous integration of multiple techniques and media, not to mention the touching story about a guy who makes newspaper hats and smiles on the Chicago El.

I spoke with Bend in the theater on the 15th (where, of course, it appeared that an opening in 3 days would not be possible). Dressed in patched jeans, a T-shirt featuring an image of a wheelbarrow, and a lace scarf, she sat calmly amid the paper hats, computers, controllers, projectors, cables, lighting gear, partially-made puppets, puppet-sized backdrops and assorted models made for the video component of the piece, which will be on display in Manbites’ lobby throughout the show’s run, to discuss the show’s changes.

Full-sized humans working puppets in front of artist-made city model in THE PAPER HAT GAME. Photo: Eric Monson.

“The voice-overs are softer, less theatrical,” she said, “with a more natural, documentary style.” Because she is hoping to tour the work, she has cut the number of puppeteers from 7 to 5 (still hard to see how they all fit behind that small proscenium/screen), so she had to cut a few scenes. She’s re-worked the 3-D street grid with buildings (“in my obsessive-compulsive way,” she groaned) to give it greater detail, more shadows, when it appears in the background. The piece will undoubtedly retain its great charm, but will be different enough that even those lucky enough to have seen it before will want to consider going again.

“The biggest problem with this form of work is that it limits the audience size,” Bend told me. The show will run for three weekends, but only 52 seats will be available for each performance. Get tickets at

A darker moment in THE PAPER HAT GAME, which has an unexpected twist. Photo: Eric Monson.

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