LOADED OBJECTS, at the Carrack Gallery through 10/26

Stencil for Bull Jumping Shark tag that's showing up on the hoardings of various high-dollar developments in Durham. Anonymous.

Stencil for the Bull Jumping Shark tag that’s showing up on the hoardings of various high-dollar developments in Durham, perhaps as a warning. Anonymous.

The Carrack Modern Art Gallery, should you have never ventured the stairs leading up from the bakery at 111 West Parrish Street in downtown Durham, is an unusual place. It’s a zero-commission gallery, which means that if an artwork sells, the artist gets all the money. It also means that the gallery runs on grants, donations and labors of love–and the labor is not inconsequential. Shows at the Carrack turn over every two weeks. The current show, Loaded Objects, up through this weekend only, has been curated by Chris Vitiello as part of his omnivorous love of the arts. Vitiello (who is currently visual art reporter and critic for IndyWeek) has a wide-ranging mind and a sensitive eye, the nerve path of which seems to be routed through his heart.

Plaything, mixed media, by Cody Platt, with a Jim Lee photograph in the background.

Plaything, mixed media, including breakfast cereal, by Cody Platt, with a Jim Lee photograph in the background.

By this I mean he feels what he sees, and makes astute connections between images and ideas, weaving those connecting points together in webs of words. He has chosen objects and images that link for him under the rubric of “utility.” Vitiello is also a poet (and appears frequently as the notorious Poetry Fox, to be found pounding out poems on demand on a classy old manual typewriter in unlikely locations around town), and to follow his logic requires the viewer to open the sluice gates on her own poetic imagination, even though Vitiello has written cogent (and sometimes hortatory) wall texts to accompany the artworks.

All significant artwork could be described as “loaded.” Its power lies in communicating things for which beloved language is inadequate. In this gallery full of extremely different works, Vitiello seems to have put together a kind of free-verse praise song lauding the wondrous variety of things and images that can stop us in our tracks with their bullets of truth. His taste is catholic as to media and subject, but he has a strong bias toward the well-made, which helps the viewer feel the connections as the eye moves among the objects.

There aren’t many paintings in the show, but two paintings by Bonnie Melton could constitute a show in themselves.  A photograph can only suggest the prickly, passionate beauty of her painted surfaces, with their signifying shapes and vibrating color interactions.

Backstitch (Embroidery for Jean), oil on wood, Bonnie Melton.

Backstitch (Embroidery for Jean), oil on wood, Bonnie Melton.

Once you can tear your eyes away from Melton’s work, it is not difficult to hopscotch to the next texture, the next message. You may end up feeling like St. Sebastian, though, shot full of arrows, art arrows.

Curator Vitiello and some of the exhibition artists will talk about the work in the gallery, 7:30 p.m. 10/23. Free.

Gallery shot of the Carrack's LOADED OBJECTS, curated by Chris Vitiello. L to R, works by Andre Leon Gray, Anonymous, Tama Hochbaum.

Gallery shot of the Carrack’s LOADED OBJECTS, curated by Chris Vitiello. L to R, works by Andre Leon Gray, Anonymous, Tama Hochbaum.

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

ELSEWHERE: A CelloOpera Premieres at Carolina Performing Arts

A moment from the Carolina Performing Arts-commissioned ELSEWHERE, a total work of art by Maya Beiser, Robert Woodruff, and assorted other artists. Photo courtesy the artists/CPA.

What did you do last night? Oh, I just went to another world premiere at Carolina Performing Arts. Didn’t you do that a week or so ago? Yes, this was another one. It was a multi-art performance bold in concept, cinematic in scope, and stunning in execution. Oh, and the music…the music was ferocious. It was a CelloOpera. A what? A CelloOpera, ELSEWHERE. It took me there, and I’m not back yet.

ELSEWHERE, between the scrims. Photo courtesy the artists/CPA.

What makes an opera? It must have music, big music, but it must also have words, passion, imagery, and movement—and they must interlock, and each must be necessary to the others. For an opera that matters, artistically speaking, the totality of the thing must be all the audience can bear. “Cello goddess” Maya Beiser and experienced stage director Robert Woodruff have made such an opera. Melding live and recorded music and song with live and projected movement in a set consisting of a white scrim room with five cots behind a dark, churned earthy field, Elsewhere engages the intellect, the senses, and a range of emotions not generally set loose in grand opera. From the moment it began, when Beiser entered the scrim room to take up her waiting cello, until the house lights came up 70 minutes later, there was nothing but Elsewhere anywhere, but we experienced it in many ways at once.

Multiple viewpoints must come naturally to Beiser. Her mother is French, her father Argentine. She was raised on an Israeli kibbutz, then graduated from the Yale School of Music. Based in New York, she performs internationally, often collaborating with adventurous composers, musicians, and other artists. She was an early member of the Bang on a Can new music ensemble, and one of its co-founders, Michael Gordon, wrote “Industry,” the instrumental second movement of the CelloOpera. (Another founder, David Lang was recently in Durham for the Anonymous 4 performance of his love fail.)

Beiser and dancers behind the scrim. Photo courtesy the artists/CPA.

Beiser’s cello is the only instrument, but in her hands it becomes protean, and her playing generates so many sounds that an orchestra would be superfluous. She speaks the words of the opera’s first section, “Far Off Country,” which come from Henri Michaux’ poem “I Write to You From a Far-off Country,” edited by Beiser and the music composer Eve Beglarian. Helga Davis sings (powerfully, through a wide range) its third section, “Salt,” with its text by Erin Cressida Wilson. Both texts are extremely moving; difficult and lovely, they each speak in the voice of a woman testifying about the end of the world as she knows it. Michaux’ talks about the Holocaust, and Wilson’s give voice to the woman known down through time as “Lot’s Wife.”

The cello is often called the instrument most like the human voice, but usually one thinks of a warm, mellifluous voice, beautiful, when hearing that phrase. Beiser’s cello can be those things, but it can also howl like a screaming wind in a hurricane. A big woman in a sheer white lace dress, she wailed through that amplified million-dollar cello like there was no tomorrow, only this one night, these short minutes, to preserve all knowledge for someone else’s future. Sawing madly, hair flying, bow-strings shredding, her left hand sliding through shriek and growl, she took us into the dark, to the end of time, and then she slapped that big body until the reverb went into a feedback loop, when she threw it, finished, onto the bed.

I am writing to you from the end of the world.
You must realize this.
Often the trees tremble. We collect the leaves.
they have a ridiculous number of veins. What for?
There is nothing between the tree and and leaves anymore… And we go off troubled.

Could life not continue on earth without wind?
Or must everything tremble always, always?

— from I Am Writing to You From a Far-Off Country by Henri Michaux, adapted and set to the original composition FAR OFF COUNTRY by Eve Beglarian

That was just the end of the first section. While Beiser stormed, the four dancers had come and gone in various disturbing ways. They returned a final time coated in mud, dripping and shivering. Each woman sat on a bed and cocooned herself into a winding sheet, then slithered under the scrim to lie still in the dark duff downstage. The frames and jittering lines (fence wire, alternating current, musical staffs) of the video projections gave way entirely to the movement of huge forces: waves, clouds, boiling smoke. Before the feedback had ceased its painful echo, Beiser leapt up, razored open the scrim and emerged—to excavate a stool and another cello.

This one’s electric: neck, bridge and strings, with a drawing in wood of a cello shape around them, standing on a very tall spike. You could see her lace covered leg keeping the beat through the open instrument. The moment she raised it out of the dirt was one of the most dramatic I’ve ever seen. It was like she was raising the dead. If there is a flaw in Elsewhere, it may be that this staggering sequence somewhat overpowered the beginning of Michael Gordon’s “Industry,” which is quite a wonderful piece, once you can pay attention to it.

Beiser continued on the electric cello for the final section, “Salt,” composed by Missy Mazzoli. Again, there were informative and emotive videos, but singer Helga Davis’ presence is so large and commanding that the videos became rich background elements. The text, which ran across the front scrim as it was being sung, was interesting, if not quite as poetic as Michaux’, but Davis’ vocalizing made it piercing. Her voice together with Beiser’s cello made a song beyond the capacity of words to describe or explain.

This encompassing CelloOpera will next be performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, as part of the Next Wave Festival, Oct. 17-20. If you happen to be in New York, you can go Elsewhere then, and thank Carolina Performing Arts for the patronage that took you there.

Maya Beiser, photo by Merri Cyr

Listen to clips from these links:

From Michael Gordon’s INDUSTRY

Sections 1 and 2 from FAR OFF COUNTRY

See video on http://mayabeiser.com

For more on the creative team, including the choreographer, filmmaker and scenic designer, go here.

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