7/26/17

Music Clean-Out Time!

Music: Summer Clean Out Time

Every year I get inundated with new releases in the spring and by mid-summer they've backed up like Friday afternoon on I-95. Here's a roundup of some things I want to let you all know about before mold grows and the leaves drop.

 My favorite among the bunch is the debut solo effort of Hugh Masterson, Lost and Found. Masterson' no neophyte; he's been a guy in the band with The Lone Bellow, Nikki Lane, Margo Price, and others. This taut six-song EP suggests he's spent his spare time productively. Masterson uses his whiskey-soaked voice to good effect and is more than capable of fronting a kick-ass band. But what really makes him stand out is his ability to take what life deals and turn it a really good country rock line. He got hit with a tire iron in a Milwaukee mugging and parlayed his wired-jaw downtime into the titletrack—a musing on how things turn on a dime. What's not to admire about tight prose like, I'm somewhere in the middle of lost and found? Or, From now on I'm living like I'm dying. There are Springsteen-like echoes in the pathos of "Small Town" and in his command of the band in "Show Me the Road." ★★★★      #HughBob

Think of a more pop version of Kate Rusby crossed with a younger version of Jewel, and you are in the right ballpark for Ellen Thweatt, a Nashville-based singer/songwriter who has sung backup for Carrie Underwood. As we hear on her debut EP Halfway in the Clouds, all she needs is a bit of seasoning and her backup days are over. "Airplane" has a catchy country feel. Also try "Butterflies," a bluegrass/pop mash. The latter shows her great promise and what's needed next: a bit of maturity to add depth that will give edge to the little girl tones. There is a lot of potential waiting to be unleashed. ★★★★



It's Country is the debut album from Levi Petree but it's only a partly descriptive title (and derives from a semi-ironic remark made by a friend). He's a Louisiana native, so he comes by his twang naturally. "The Rapture" is badass country, but of the frenzied kind that makes you understand why some have called him Johnny Cash combined with The Clash. Yet "Rockaway" captures that "small tune" essence that The Beatles used to great effect on the White Album. There's even a little torchy/slightly corny "Lover's Cove," which is analogous to those sensitive not-quite-ballads rockabilly artists used to cool the room temperature. This is a skillful debut.★★★★   

Cory Branan is a gravely-voiced singer whose observation is things aren't so good in the US of A for quite a few folks. His Adios explores discomfort as measured by the spectrum between screwed up and everyone dies. Try "Another Nightmare in America" (with Rodney Crowell and Dave Hause), with its gritty lyric: Ain't no use praying/There's no soul there to save/Boy you're just the difference/'tween a hole and a grave. You might want to check out "I Only Know" as well, which is about as close to happy as it gets on this album. ★★★   #corybranan



The Wild Reeds are an LA-based band anchored by three women (Kinsey Lee, Sharon Silva, Mackenzie Howe). They sometimes get saddled with female Crosby, Stills, and Nash analogies, but who wants to carry that kid of baggage? Their sophomore release is titled The World We Built. Their music is a mix of soft and hard—soft when the vocals are in play with an uptick in volume and instrumentation in the seams. "Only Songs" opens with a nostalgic look back at their youth (in the 1990s!), but leavened with experience born of bad decisions that left behind songs that contain as much truth as easy promises of earthly salvation. Cleverly, the song hints of a girl group pop 90s style. Moving on is also the theme of "Everything LooksBetter (In Hindsight)," which is based on a tried-and-true theme: love that didn't last and what, if anything, survives. Forget the CSN comparisons and just call this folk rock with harmonies and hard edges. ★★★ ½  #thewildreeds

Nathaniel Braddock comes to Cambridge, Massachusetts via Chicago and now teaches guitar at Passim School of Music. He has played with numerous groups, but has recently released a solo acoustic album titled Quadrille and Collapse. His sound is on the dreamy/contemplative end of the spectrum. Delicate tunes tend to be heavier on high notes with bass and low notes assuming drone-like qualities. Check out "The Desert Within," which is typical of the atmospherics contained on this recording. Its only downside is that it could use more diversity. ★★★



Speaking of atmosphere, Palm Ghosts is a project and debut record headed by Philadelphian Joseph Lekkas. It's a blend of pop, electronica, folk, and ethereal rock in which Lekkas' breathy vocals act as delicate ornaments within the mix. "Seasons" uses thumping bass and a repetitive keyboard groove to set a gauzy mood somewhat at odds with the song's flirtatious lyrics. "I Know You Won't Break My Heart" is similar in content and in hypnotic feel. Enjoyable and relaxing stuff, though some may find it more yogic than intoxicating. ★★★



If all this innovation makes you want to take a step back in time, try Going Home by Joe Newberry and April Verch, he of North Carolina via Missouri, and she of Canada's Ottawa Valley. They title track is a Si Kahn song, but it sounds like something that's been kicking around the backwoods forever. Ditto "WillYou Wait For Me," which Newberry and Verch co-wrote. If Newberry sounds familiar to you, you've probably heard him weave his old-time magic on an episode or two of Garrison Keillor's show. And when it comes to kick-up-you-heels fiddling, it's hard to top Ms. Verch. ★★★★
#aprilverch

Rob Weir

7/24/17

If You've Not Seen Wonder Woman, Do So!

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WONDER WOMAN (2017)
Directed by Patty Jenkins
Warner Brothers, 141 minutes, PG-13
★★★★

Summer blockbusters and I are usually not on the best of terms, but I'll make an exception for Wonder Woman. Patty Jenkins is the first woman to direct a superhero film. It's a travesty that it has taken this long, but welcome to the club, Ms. Jenkins. May it never again be a fraternity.

One of the things that makes Wonder Woman work on the screen is that it's based on a comic book character. Unlike biographies, textbook myths, or reworked fantasy novels, comic books long ago abandoned official single narratives. These are not your grandmother's super heroes—at least not entirely. It's a multiverse out there, folks, so don't expect this Diana Prince to be like the William Moulton Marston original. (As those who've read Jill Lepore's The Secret History of Wonder Woman can attest, that's a good thing—Marston was a sick puppy!) Nor are the Amazons faithful to Greek mythology; DC Comics put its first spin on the Amazons in 1941 and it's been a gyroscope ever since.

Before I go one sentence deeper, let me utter the two words that assure you'll keep your eyes glued to the front: Gal Gadot. She is utterly riveting as Wonder Woman/Diana Prince and in ways that go well beyond her astonishing beauty. She plays with a full deck of emotions: steely, impulsive, moral, conflicted, fearless, vulnerable, calm, angry, determined, frustrated…. In other words, she has too much depth for us to see her as just a comic book character.

The story opens in Themyscyra, the island home of the Amazons—some of whom are mortal and some of whom are demigoddesses. It is a magical CGI-created Herland paradise of hills, greenery, waterfalls, and fantastical architecture ruled by Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen). Most Amazons are born through asexual parthenogenesis, but a god fathered Hippolyta. Even Zeus is gone now, though, as he used the last of his power to bind Ares, the god of war. Only a select few know of Hippolyta's parentage, including General Antiope (Robin Wright), who relentlessly trains the Amazons in case Ares is ever unshackled. From an early age, Diana wishes to become a warrior, but her mother does not want her to know that she is a demigoddess. Diana has a mind of her own, however, and chooses to leave Themyscyra when the Amazon world is rocked by the appearance of Steve Trevor's plane bursting through its cloaking fog with a hot pursuit of Germans at his tail. The "war to end all war" (World War One) is underway and, though the Amazons have never heard of it, Diana's sense of justice is aroused and she's off the see what she can do, with shield, tiara, magic bracelets, and the lasso of Hestia in hand.

There are nice flashes of humor as Diana tries to learn human ways and Steve (Chris Pine) attempts to teach her, but this is a save-the-world action film that ranges from London, to Paris, and to Belgium. Along the way, Diana and Steve gather companions, Wizard of Oz style: Sameer (Said Taghmaoui), a Moroccan spy; Chief Napi (Eugene Brave Rock), who has secrets of his own; a Scot named Charlie (Ewen Bremmer), who'd be a sharpshooter if he didn't drink so much; and a British MP (David Thewlis), who clandestinely bankrolls their mission. You'd not think such a motley assortment would be much of a match against the pure evil of General Erich Ludendorff (Danny Huston), poison maven Isabel Maru (Elena Anaya), and the entire German military, but may I remind you that Wonder Woman is a super heroine?

Want to enjoy this film? Let go of your logic. Just do it. Let this big spectacle suck you in it. There is a lot of money on the screen. The credits roll forever and even if you only glance at them, you'll notice a veritable who's who of CGI, f/x, and animation worked on the film. I imagine that cinematographer Matthew Jensen and costume designer Linda Hemming submitted large invoices of their own. I even liked Rupert Gregson-Williams' grandiose score, though I'd like it even more if a future director's cut lost the god-awful Sia "To Be Human" track. But, really, this film has everything you could hope for in a summer blockbuster: lots of action, creepy villains, solid acting, characters with dimension, and a fabulous performance from Gadot. Did I mention that, at long last, we have a female who kicks butt? If you forget, millions of little girls across the globe are poised to remind you.

Rob Weir

   
@WonderWomanFilm
#WonderWoman


7/21/17

Sabra Field at Middlebury College Museum of Art

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SABRA FIELD, THEN AND NOW: A RETROSPECTIVE

Middlebury College Museum of Art

Through August 13, 2017


If you don’t live in Vermont, perhaps the name Sabra Field doesn’t ring immediate bells. But you know her art. With the possible exception of Woody Jackson—he of the black and white Holsteins that grace Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream products—no recent artist has done more to evoke Vermont’s rural heritage than Ms. Field. Not many artists can claim that 60 million people have seen her work. In 1991, she pulled out nostalgic stops for a red barn, verdant fields, green hills, and blue skies ensemble that graced U.S. postage stamps. If that sounds more commercial than artistic, read on.



Although she is now 82, has lived in East Barnard since 1967, and has been producing art since her undergraduate days in the 1950s, her Middlebury College retrospective is aptly titled “Then and Now.” It includes old favorites among the 100 works on display, but also more recent work like a sixteen-panel assemblage titled “Cosmic Geometry,” which on the surface appears to a collection of spirals, angles, architectural details, shapes, and natural objects, but which might also be viewed as metaphors for life and passages. Even more stunning is her “Pandora Suite,” a powerful exploration of the human experience from the exaltations of love to the ugliness of racism and the insanity of war. There’s much more to Sabra Field than barns and farms.



Still, there’s no escaping the fact that Field is first and foremost associated with tranquil wood block prints that capture the solitude of the Vermont countryside. And if you wonder about the postage stamp thing, consider that for many years Field grappled the same challenge that most artists face: how to parlay the creative spirit into something that resembles making a living. She raised a family, taught art to supplement the family budget, flogged her work at craft fairs, and did small shows. Emily and I first saw her work in the 1970s at the Montshire Museum in Norwich, and the fact that it’s science museum gives you a clue that Field's impact was more modest back then. Here’s another tip-off; we own a few of her prints—things we bought for much less than they’d go for now! 





 If you look hard at Field’s prints, you begin to realize that she’s doing more than romanticizing rural vistas or seeking to fossilize fading ways of life. There is a Zen-like quality to a lot of her work. In some cases, Japanese aesthetics are pretty obvious, but there are others in which it’s subtler. You stand before scenes of waving grass, puffy clouds, undulating fields, and lumpy mountains that are bisected by fence lines, silos, shadows, of contrasting patches of color and, without realizing it is happening, you sink into a meditative state. Others, like “Fox in Winter” or any of a number of deep frost scenes force you to think upon the dance of life, struggle, survival, and mortality. Or, if you wish, you could just see her work as appealing to the eye. If you can make it to the show, though, you’ll learn from the captions and a video that Field had more in mind than simply making pretty pictures. My personal take is that we ought to take regional artists such as she much more seriously than we do. But I suspect that Sabra Field would be happy that people like what they see—no matter what they make of it.
 

If you can’t get to Middlebury before August 13, don’t despair. Ms. Field is an alum and the college is a repository for her work, so there’s likely to be something on display next time you’re passing through. And there are always Vermont galleries to consider. Field is now such an icon that it’s a rare independent gallery than doesn’t have something of hers on offer. You’ll know her work when you see it. First the color will grab you, then the composition, and then…?



Rob Weir










7/19/17

More Bad Ideas



It's nice to know in our age of limits that there's never a shortage of bad ideas out there. Here's the latest bountiful crop.

Worst.Fashion.Ever.
Men's rompers take the already ridiculous fashion industry to depths I couldn't have even imagined. I am actually at a loss for words to describe how appalling I find these. Simple message to anyone who thinks donning a pair of rompers makes you a hipster: No! They make you look like a bigger rube than a Bernie Madoff investor. Take a good look. I wouldn't wear one of these to bed for fear of mattress rejection. Wait. I take it back. I did wear these to bed—when I was two. I'm stupefied that any guy would wear one of these.





A dubious hero.
Alex Honnold is an amazing physical specimen and a brave guy. He's also incredibly lucky. Honnold is the first person to scale Half Dome at Yosemite National Park solo without the use of any ropes or safety equipment. He did it four hours, often hanging over sheer drops that would have sent him to a quick but terrifying death. I get it. Mountain climbers know that what they do is dangerous, thrive on the adrenaline, and accept that risks. I don't mean to belittle Honnold's achievement in any way, but making him into a media hero is a very and idea. About a dozen people per year already die in Yosemite and valorizing acts such as this serves only tempt those with less skill and common sense to try to top Honnold's feat. If you think I exaggerate, check out the numbers of injuries and deaths associated with trying to top stunts in the Dumb and Dumber movies. We should not give such exposure to acts such as Honnold's. What he does with his life is his business, but it should a private act, not a media circus.

Is this the best way?
Last Saturday I was strolling toward my local farmers' market and was approached by religious pamphleteers standing by a sign that read: "What Does the Bible Really Teach About Homosexuality?" I politely walked on by as I've (finally!) learned that there is no point in debating those whose minds are already made up. I will say, though, that in my life no gay person has ever tried to convert me to anything. Nor have they ever accosted me on the streets, rang my doorbell, or stuffed a pamphlet under my door. Mostly, though, I have come to think that on-the-spot proselytizing is a bad idea. I think the same thing when Jehovah's Witnesses or Mormons come calling. Does anyone ever open the door, take a pamphlet, fall to their knees, scream "Hallelujah," and give all their assets to The Watchtower? Or don a white shirt, tie, and black pants for Brigham Young's sake? I am not anti-religion, but it seems to me that this sort of raises ire, not followers, which is what happened at the farmers' market in decidedly gay-friendly Northampton, Massachusetts. Plus, I happen to think that Christian conversion efforts rely too heavily on the Paul on the road to Damascus narrative. Conversion to anything—faith, sobriety, or political ideology—is almost always a process not an instance.

Imagine a world...
Pulling out of the Paris Accords is beyond a bad idea—it's an act that moves the hand on the Doomsday Clock. Most of the Climate Change deniers aren't actually anti-science; they are just so pro-greed that they refuse to contemplate the future beyond the next investment quarter. They are perfectly willing to parry your concern for your grand kids with a middle digit thrust upward. The sad part, though, and the really, really bad part is that they are allowed to get away with this. That is to say that we give forums to such craven people and allow them to spread falsehood among the gullible and/or less informed. I'm generally not a fan of censorship, but I would favor laws to prosecute climate change denial along the lines in which Germany has outlawed Holocaust denial. Let me put it this starkly. If you are a climate change denier, you must ask yourself this question: "What if I'm wrong?" It's lunacy to gamble on being right. Far better that a future generation should laugh at alarmists than there be no one left to laugh. It's a very bad idea not to oppose withdrawal from the Paris Accords with all your might.

 

7/17/17

Things to Come: Seriously Compromised

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THINGS TO COME (2016)
Directed by Mia Hansen-Løve
Les Films de Losange, 102 minutes, PG-13. In French with subtitles.

Things to Come has captured quite a few film awards. Mia Hensen-Løve won the Best Director award at the Berlin International Film Festival, and critics in both New York and London chose Isabelle Huppert as Best Actress for her work in this film. I am at a complete loss to understand why. My only guess is that critics somehow believe that the film's anachronistic messages are still relevant, not decades past their sell-by date.

Nathalie Chazeaux (Huppert) teaches philosophy at a Paris high school and, in her spare time, dotes on a former protégé, Fabien (Roman Kolinka). She is intellectually satisfied, has a thriving career as a textbook writer/editor, is the mother of two adult children, and dwells in a tidy Paris home with her husband Heinz (André Marcon), a university philosophy professor. The two share an abiding love in all things deep and academic. The only seeming complication is that Nathalie has a needy, elderly mother, whom she treats as more of an annoyance than as a concerned daughter/caregiver.

As such films go, things fall apart. Heinz leaves Nathalie for a younger woman, her mother dies, and she inherits a cat named Pandora to whom she is allergic (or so says the script, though Nathalie shows no outward signs of being so). Allegorically speaking, we are about to open Pandora's box. Nathalie even loses her job with the publishing house, which suddenly discovers there really isn't much of a market for a firm that only sells philosophy books. Hello! This has been the case since the 1970s. Sorry, but I can't believe that anyone in the 21st century is making big royalties from publishing cheap paperback philosophy tracts. Nor do I believe that it took France 40 years to discover that academic presses aren't goldmines. But for now, let's assume that any of this is remotely plausible. Nathalie's reaction to her snowballing misfortunes? "The future seems compromised."

If only this were the singular thing in this film that was compromised. It plays like Woody Allen at his worst. As in Allen's films, no one in Things to Come speaks like a normal human being. This is certainly the case of Nathalie's high school students, all of whom seem to be like Jean-Paul Sartre in teen garb. Moreover, Natalie's laconic acceptance for her new reality strikes all of the wrong notes, even though we are supposed to imagine that she has been freed to pursue an authentic existential self. I have lived an academic life and I have seen intellectuals dissolve their relationships. Can I just say that most of these partings are more Nietzsche than Sartre?

I get the fact that Nathalie is stuck in 1968, the year France was in rebellion, students like she were at the barricades, and the French Fifth Republic nearly tumbled. I also know that the ideas were taken very seriously back that. Keywords: back then. Nathalie isn't a Marxist gamine anymore; she lives the bourgeois life she loves to critique. In like manner, Fabien fancies himself an anarchist but he's really, as Heinz points out, an impolite leech. Nathalie later visits him at a self-styled anarchist commune tucked among the Rhône-Alpes peaks that replicates some of the worst 60s-style chauvinism. Other than that, it seems more like a ski chalet than a commune.

A scene that makes even less sense takes place in the Paris movie theater, where a man gropes Nathalie. Who the hell is he? A former lover? A pervert? We never find out. When Nathalie storms out of the movie, the man follows her, but never says a word before sulking off when Nathalie yells, "I'm not in the mood." This is a creepy scene with a distressingly trite resolution.

You don't need to be a philosophy major to figure out this film's themes. Natalie is an aging 50s-something woman on the cusp of losing her desirability. (She's actually 64.) Her daughter and her child represent the continuation of her physical life and Fabien and his circle are symbolic of her intellectual legacy. Natalie needs to reinvent herself for the final phase of her life, lest she end up like her whiny mother. All of this is so heavy-handed that this film can be said to be seriously compromised.

Rob Weir

7/14/17

MassMoCA Always a Showcase of New Delights

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In the last post I spotlighted the Clark Institute of Art. If you're headed for Williamstown,  be sure to pop over to the adjacent town of North Adams to visit the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, better known as Mass MoCA. I visit the Clark to see old favorites, but I go to Mass MoCA see things I've never seen before. #massmoca



A word on the campus and the town of North Adams: Mass MoCA is located on the 24-acre site of what was previously Sprague Electric. At one time, Sprague employed more than 4,100 people and its 1985 closure ripped the guts out of a town that was already on the downward slope. In the first four decades of the 20th century, North Adams was home to about 22,000; today there are fewer than 14,000. Mass MoCA opened its doors in 1999, a gutsy move in a fading blue-collar town where locals much prefer lager to LeWitt. Naysayers predicted that Mass MoCA would be a taxpayer-subsidized flop. They were wrong. Mass MoCA will never replace all those lost Sprague jobs—not with a staff that's more in the order of 50, not thousands. North Adams is still pocked by empty red brick factories and substandard housing, but Mass MoCA does generate around $10 million each year for the local economy. Score one for art.

Here's the deal: You won't like everything you see there, but the stuff that does grab you is likely to be stuff you've seldom before encountered. Contemporary art differs radically from classical art in that it's more speculative. Collectors may spend a lot of money on pieces, but it's as big a gamble as Mass MoCA itself whether the investment will pay off.  Curators, critics, and collectors think they have discriminating tastes, but they are often spectacularly wrong—as evidenced by the kind of art that today hangs in conventional museums, much of which was denounced in its day as rubbish. If you see things at Mass MoCA that strike you as landfill, you might end up being right, but maybe not! 

To show my own cards, I'm not a big fan of visual word art; that is, pieces that are supposed to blow me away with the juxtaposition of words—often too small to read when on the wall—with other media. I find such works too personal to resonate broadly and, frankly, I find a lot of it nonsense dressed in pretentious explanations. I also lose patience with most video installations—mostly because I don't want to waste my time and energy on them. (I also see film as a different form of mental stimulation.) My final admission is that I can't stand the aforementioned (Sol) LeWitt. I think he' was the P.T. Barnum of art. Others love him; thereby proving art is, in the end, subjective.  





When Mass MoCA scores, it scores big. Two exhibits playing this summer fit that bill. The first, Radical Small by Elizabeth King, borrows from Walt Whitman the idea of the eidolon—projecting human likenesses onto inanimate objects. The monster in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is a form of this; ditto Pinocchio. Eidolons show up elsewhere: carnival automatons, androids, the golem of Jewish folktales, homunculi, shape-shifters, the folkloric fetch, wraiths, the White Walkers of Game of Thrones…. King serves them to us visually, through uses of film, poppets, masks, small machines, photographs, and representations of body parts like floating heads that are stripped from the overall human physique. It's at once fascinating, disturbing, visually stunning, and creepy.   



Even more fascinating is an installation by Nick Cave, an African American artist not to be confused with the Australian musician of the same name, though the two share morbid fixations. His Until appears at first a riot of pleasure: thousands of dangling glittering objects that look like a forest of scored CDs with cut-outs. Then you walk among them and revelation dawns. Those beautiful 'sunbursts' aren't at all what you thought; they are the flashes from gun muzzles, which we see in the profiles of weapons and bullets that appear when we 'see' instead of merely 'look.' Cave is also interested in representations of race and what these mean in society. His video installation is one of the few for which I did sit still. (Admittedly, the projected wave pattern upon the floor is so hypnotic and vertigo inducing that I needed to sit!)  This smart, provocative exhibit is biting social satire.





Sadly, the sculptures of Fererico Uribe are now gone, as his Here Comes the Sun was a perfect companion to Cave. Amidst his whimsical assemblages of animals are some that stop you in your tracks: a porcupine made of hypodermic needles, a sheep constructed of sharp scissors, rabbits and fawns fashioned from bullet cartridges….




But that's how it is at Mass MoCA. It's a place where you can wander in old factory corridors and then into a multi-colored tube. There are some permanent displays, such as  Michael Oatman's stunning all utopias fall, but mostly we go there to see what's new, hip, and perhaps a classic sometime in the future. A new building has just opened, nearly doubling the gallery space and featuring works by a few names you might recognize: Laurie Anderson, Louise Bourgeois, and Don Gummer (Mr. Meryl Streep). I can't wait to return to see what's new. 



 Rob Weir

7/12/17

Clark Art Institute: My Favorites

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Among the many joys of living in Western Massachusetts is that the Clark Institute of Art is only an hour from my home. It is, simply, one of the most important repositories in the country—especially for 19th century art.  #@the_clark

New Yorkers Robert Sterling and Francine Clark were so shaken by the devastation of World War Two and the ensuing Cold War that they placed their considerable collection in a locale unlikely to be ravaged by a nuclear attack: Williamstown, in the far northwestern corner of Massachusetts, where it joins New York and Vermont. The Clark opened its doors in 1955. The next time you go, here's a baker's dozen of my favorites.

My favorite is Smoke of Ambergris from John Singer Sargent. Admittedly, it exoticizes Moroccan culture. The figure is of a woman lifting her veil to take in the scent of ambergris, incense made from whale oil (which is also non-PC). But my goodness, what a picture! Nobody does white on white (or black on black) as well as Sargent. This one transfixes me every time I see it. There are just enough splashes of other colors to make the whites pop out. I marvel at the skill of someone who can get so much depth out of white, nature's most neutral pigment. I had a poster of this for decades, but it's not even close to the experience of seeing it.

A close runner-up is Nymphs and Satyr by William-Adolphe Bouguereau. This is a "Why don't I ever get invited to parties like this?" painting. Three naked lasses dance around a randy satyr and a fourth beckons him into the woods for what we can be pretty sure is not PG-13 fun and games. The funny thing is that, even though no one in the gallery can take their eyes off of this, everybody pretends to be looking elsewhere—as if they're naughty little boys sneaking a look at a Playboy magazine. Go ahead; stare.

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema was a Dutch-born British academic painter that some people loathe, but I like him, especially his The Women of Amphissa. You've probably never over indulged like these women, who are sleeping off a night of drinking and dancing in honor of Bacchus, the Greek god of wine. It looks like he was well praised! But the real fun of this picture is counting how many times you see the same model represented in slightly different ways. She's Laura, the artist's second wife. Look for the schnoz! 

 
I've seen so much Impressionist art that I occasionally forget why I love it. The Clark reminds me. One of my all time favorites is Monet's Street in Sainte-Adresse. It evokes the memory of the first time I walked down a European village lane such as this. All I have to do is change the clothes and it's all there: the walled path, the stone buildings, the smoke rising from a hearth, the shade trees, and the church dominating the town. Monet is an instant time warp.

Bouguereau isn't really one of my favorite painters, but his Seated Nude is glorious. It perfectly illustrates the difference between naked and nude. Although the young model wears nothing but an enigmatic expression and a lush blue cloth tumbling down her back, the adjective that springs to mind is "innocent."

If you ever need a visual spirit-lifter, Monet and Tulip Fields at Sassenheim will do the trick. The countryside, a rustic cottage, and a riot of pink, yellow, green, lavender, and red that looks like earthbound fireworks. Works for me!

I admit, though, that sometimes I OD on 'pretty' Impressionist works. That's why Camille Pissarro is probably my favorite within that august genre. Despite the shambolic lifestyles of most Impressionists, few were what you'd call working-class heroes. As Port of Rouen, Unloading Wood indicates, Pissarro was different. He actually painted working people, grit, and grime. And he made it look good.

Winslow Homer is a New England favorite, but his endless paintings of churning seas and barren rocks just don't do it for me. My favorite Homer is Sleigh Ride, a rare winter scene. What is more New England than winter? I love the way Homer used light, a reminder that our "dark" season exists more in imagined gloom than how Mother Nature actually illumines.     

Maybe I have a thing for bad-boy artists. Henri Toulouse-Lautrec is nobody's idea of a saint. He hung out in whorehouses, absinthe bars, and sketchy clubs. Yet, this portrait of Carmen intrigues because of its ambiguity. Is Carmen a harlot, or an unfortunate gypsy girl caught up in cycles of robbery, betrayal, and perhaps a dash of the occult? Lautrec's portrait is a face that is, at once, defiant but sallow. Is this Carmen beautiful, or on the downward slide to haggardness?   

I don't know much about Émile Bernard, but I really love the stolidity of Portrait of Madame Lemasson. She's a Breton woman, but she evokes my grandmother, who similarly attended to the tasks at hand with down-turned eyes. She also exuded a silent no-nonsense countenance.

The Clark's 1524 Portrait of a Man by Jan Gossaert is everything a Reformation era painting should be, and not just because it evokes the work of Hans Holbein (the Younger). It's those dark tones, the elaborate frame, the burgher's chain of authority, the handful of rings, the velvet bonete, the whiff of prosperity inherent in the figure's double chinned gaze, and the vibrant blue surrounding him like a secular halo. 


I like Perseus Rescuing Andromeda because this picture from Cavaliere d'Arpino is at once dramatic and silly. In Greek mythology, Andromeda is punished because she's more beautiful than many of the goddesses, so they chain to a rock, where she's menaced by Cetus, a sea monster. Well you would, wouldn't you? Along comes our hero, Perseus, astride his flying horse, Pegasus. He rescues Andromeda so he can go forth and do other hero stuff—like slice off Medusa's head. In this painting, though, our sea monster looks a dog plagued with reptile skin, Andromeda—her lipstick never mussed—looks more bemused than threatened, and Perseus seems to have left an Arctic lair. It's like a Terry Gilliam cartoon with a Wagnerian score.

Finally, I like Pére Fournaise by Renoir because it's jolly. I like the figure's sparkling blue eyes, his easy-going manner, and the glasses of beer on the table. I think there's one calling me right now.