Ocean Liners and Monsters at Peabody Essex Museum

 Ocean Liners: Glamour, Speed, and Style
                        (through October 8, 2017)
It's Alive: Classic Horror and Sci-Fi Art from the Kirk Hammett Collection
                        (through November 28, 2017)
Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA

The Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) wants to become New England's second leading art museum. Until recently, PEM was mostly a memorial to Salem's 18th and 19th century maritime glories, which it honored with a cabinet of curiosities assemblage of all things watery. This means that it lacks a sizable permanent collection of paintings and objects that make art critics and curators swoon. Solution: If you can't beat the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, launch exhibits outside of the venerable MFA's m├ętier.  

Ocean Liners is a perfect PEM exhibit—one that's simultaneously right in its saltwater tradition, yet innovative and unique. Prior to the 1960s, high-speed transportation across oceans conjured ocean liners, not airplanes. * From the mid-19th century until well into the 1950s, "speed" meant New York to London in under a week and those who could afford it, went in "style." The PEM exhibit is the stuff of enchanting mid-century Hollywood films in which classy passengers donned formal-wear for dinner. There were, of course, those traveling on the cheap—below-decks budget travelers and immigrants in steerage—and the PEM show gives a nod to those with fewer means, but the ballroom set dominates. Think Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr in an Affair to Remember, a clip from which is part of the show. (So too is one of my all-time favorites, the hilarious Marx Brothers "stateroom" scene from A Night at the Opera.)

The breadth of the exhibit surprised me—more than 200 objects in all. There are numerous advertising posters from the golden age of steamship travel and these should be viewed as masterpieces of graphic design. Even smaller objects—such as dinner menus and hard-colored postcards—are exquisitely done. In fact, the word "glamorous" often seems inadequate, as well-apportioned ocean liners were floating mansions sporting carved oak paneling, detailing from masters in the decorative arts, Arts and Crafts furniture, and fine dining for 750 at tables outfitted with linen, gleaming silverware, fine china, and delicate crystal. Wallpaper, pianos, Art Deco tea services, lighting, fixtures, paintings, and decorative sculpture—you name it and it was done with upscale polish. Well-chosen costumes—of both passengers and crew—add to the ambience. It took a village to service what was, in essence, a floating small town. 

I longed for more on the below-decks crowd, but one of the more interesting things is how the ships were mirrors of social change. This is especially the case in observing  ways in which 1950s versions of modernism and 1960s trends tamped down the elegance. Seeing the well heeled in designer mini skirts, casual wear, and broad-lapeled suits reminds me that the upper crust simply can't do hipster without looking like poseurs. You can literally see Cary Grant-like sophistication losing out to the faux mod vibe of Sean Connery as James Bond. 

* Jet aircraft engines were developed in the 1920s, but World War II first demonstrated their potential. There were no commercial jet flights until 1952 and they were few in number because early "turbojet" technology led to catastrophic metal fatigue. "Turbofan" modifications moved mechanical energy away from, rather than through, the turbines and solved most turbojet problems. But jet engines didn't displace long-distance propeller planes until the late 1960s.  

It's Alive is the other end of the spectrum. It is 90 movie posters and objects from Kirk Hammett's personal collection of the era of classic horror and sci-fi, mostly the 1920s into the 1970s. If Hammett's name doesn't ring immediate bells, he has been the lead guitarist for Metallica since 1981. If you're a metalhead, you know that he usually wields guitars with movie scenes painted upon their bodies—almost always reproductions from posters he owns. I'll bet legions wish we had emulated what Hammett did and kept our childhood ephemera in mint condition.

There is, of course, a Gothic, ghoulish vibe to all of this, but because Hammett's stuff comes from the earlier era, it is more psychological horror than the blood-splattered graphic stuff of today. In a video, Hammett (b. 1962) speaks of how these old films and images were strangely comforting for an unorthodox and shy kid coming of age in the Bay Area in the 1970s. To this day he says he tries to play out horror film scenes on his guitar. Again, though, we're talking Frankenstein and Day of the Triffids, not Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Although his collection includes posters for two of the scariest films I've ever seen, Nosferatu (1922) and Psycho (1960), these films must be seen to induce nightmares. This is true of nearly everything you'll see. There's a goofy charm to Cold War sci-fi films such as The Day the Earth Stood Still, Japanese monster movies like Godzilla, and the various Frankenstein and Dracula offerings.

I pre-scouted this exhibit for friends wondering if it would be okay for their eight-year-old. Although you might want to steer clear of a creepy oversized projection from The Mummy, most kids will be fine—especially if they are in the midst of their dinosaur/monster phase. The eight-year-old in question loved the show. You will too if you just channel your own dinosaur/monster childhood.

The final takeaway is the irony of a guy from Metallica resurfacing as an art curator. It just goes to prove an old adage: live long enough and you too have a shot at obtaining respectability!

Rob Weir

Just can't trust 'fake news'



Road Trip: Puppets and Fine Art in Storrs, CT


Did you know that the University of Connecticut is the only place in the nation where you can get a masters degree in puppetry? Neither did I. If you’re in the vicinity and are looking for a quirky side trip, drop into the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry. It won’t take long, as the museum is just two rooms with a connecting corridor.

The lobby fronts the room that holds the permanent collection, a Puppetry 101 survey. There you will find everything from Balinese shadow puppets to Howdy Doody, Jiminy Cricket, Lamb Chop, Pinocchio, and classic Punch and Judy figures. You will also find works from famous designer/puppeteers such as Frank Oz, Bill Baird,  Buffalo Bob Smith and, of course, Jim Henson. I found the historical and international puppets more intriguing, but Henson’s works are great fun for the insight they shed on the spells a great puppeteer can cast. When you actually see iconic figures such as Kermit the Frog, Fonzie, or Grover, you notice right away that there’s not much to them aside from some fleece, flannel, and buttons. Puppets are an art form, but the real artistry lies with the performances that transform humble materials into characters that magically become “real.” 

The rest of the Ballard is devoted to changing exhibitions. I saw a display of works from the Puppeteers Collective that were mostly agitprop figures in the traditions of the San Francisco Mime Theater and Peter Schumann’s Bread and Puppet Theater. The Ballard is located at 1 Royce Circle in “downtown” Storrs. There’s not a lot to the town of Storrs, but you will certainly notice its central core of shops, cafes, and tidy apartment blocks. Most of the businesses cater to students, so the area is as dead as a marionette with broken strings when UConn is on break, but you’ll have no trouble finding a quick bite to eat or a decent cup of coffee.


If you can extend your visit, the campus is just across the street from the Ballard. If you venture up past the pond and fountain, you’ll come to signs directing you to the university’s William Benton Museum of Art (245 Glenbrook Road #2140). It won’t overwhelm you with masterpieces, and that’s a good thing as it affords opportunities to discover artists you might otherwise breeze by on your way to view works you’ve been conditioned to think you must view to boost your cultural capital. I was quite taken by works from Ellen Emmet Rand (1875-1941), who was one of the few female artists of her day to cop major donor work from the rich and powerful. Most of her work, though, has a way of capturing the inner essence of her subjects—many of them women. 


Other personal discoveries included Ministry of Salvation, a sculpture from Alex McFarlane that is a wry but poignant commentary on the link between religion and power; Barbara Takenaga’s patterned abstractions painted directly onto rose petals; and Lien Truong’s “Family Sitting #2,” which invites speculation on the nature of the nuclear family. There was also a nice (and perhaps sexualized) work from Judy Chicago, a visit to the gaudy world of Coney Island from Reginald Marsh, and “Portrait of the Poet Jan Vos” from second-tier 17th century painter Jan De Bray. I was educated by taking in a harbor scene from Dwight Tryon; he used to teach at Smith and has a gallery named for him, but I don’t recall actually having seen his work before.

Storrs seldom shows up as a daytrip for anyone not attending a basketball game, but you can easily wile away the morning there. That will leave plenty of time to get to Hartford to do what you may.

 Rob Weir


Local Art and Local Food at Art in the Orchard


Art in the Orchard
Through November 26, 2017
Park Hill Orchard, 82 Park Hill Road
Easthampton, MA

Kermit the Frog wasn't talking about farming when he said, "It's not easy being green," but he could have been. Maybe a 127 acres sounds like a lot to you, but imagine how many peaches, raspberries, and apples you'd need to sell to compete with corporate giants like Dole, Kraft, or Smucker's. We can wax nostalgic about family farms, but these days it's Goliath against David with a busted slingshot. If you want to survive, you'd better be creative about it. Perhaps art and apples sounds like one hungry man sharing one sandwich yet against all odds, it seems to work.

Each summer and fall, Alane Hartley and Russell Braen, owners of Easthampton's Park Hill Orchard transform part of their farm into an outdoor sculpture garden—mostly for local and regional artists. Much of what is on display for 2017 is quirky, some of it is a better concept than finished piece, and a lot is magical. All of it is a great excuse to buy fresh, non-commercial fruit, stroll amidst beautiful fields in the shadow of Mt. Tom, and converse with friends—the more the merrier. Here are a few of my favorites.

I'm often impressed by junk metal parts assemblages, though I seldom "like" them in the sense of thinking they are great art. But Wade Clement's Superweed really works because it is well situated. It springs from a pumpkin field like some sort of mad science project and it's hard not to think about the chemical crap Monsanto and its ilk pump into the food chain to induce largeness without wholesomeness.

Bob Turan imagines post-industrialism in his Geode Time Capsule. It put me in mind of a larger version of religious work from the Middle Ages in which pious artists meticulously carved scenes inside of nuts or small balls of ivory.

One of the strongest works is Through the Looking Glass by Eileen Jager. It's simple in concept—paneled mirrors and glass strung between two points—but the wind and light constantly change our perspective. Sometimes we peer through, sometimes we see refracted images, and often part of our vision is simultaneously crystal clear and distorted. The lesson of this is obvious, but poignant.

Michael Melle has gained well-deserved praise for his burlap, wood, straw, and wire figures. Some might have encountered his outdoor tableaux of figures from the paintings of Camille Pissarro that accompanied a 2011 retrospective of Pissarro's work at the Clark Institute of Art, or as installations at the Three Sisters Sanctuary in Ashfield. Easthampton has his powerful Refugees—a family fleeing with its meager possessions toward an uncertain destination. It could be any group at any time, though it certainly evokes various Irish Famine sculptures throughout North America.

It's not my favorite work overall, but I liked bits of Sheena: At the Fight Over the Last Fish by Mark Fenwick. It's based on a graphic novel, but I was most drawn to Sheena's face and its ice-blue eyes, all framed by a wreath of red flowers and a shell necklace.

Kudos to the youngsters from the Four Rivers Charter Public School in Greenfield for understanding the idea of "organic" art better than anyone else. Their Bumble Bee/Barn is a bunch of boxes attached to posts at various angles and filled with bamboo and wooden tubes suggestive of birdhouses and beehives. They are painted in lavender and set perfectly by a field of wildflowers alive with honeybees, butterflies, and birds hard by a working beehive. 

Slim is a holdover from last year and Michael Tillyear's wacky band is a whimsical delight. Were it not for Grommit, Tillyear's wooden pooch would be a serious candidate for the cutest canine in art award.

The hillside nearest the fruit stand is alive with wire, glass, and steel outlines of Our Tribe, Michael Poole's reflection on the various types of people who make up a community.

Chris Woodman has produced the most imposing (in a good way) piece in this year's art crop. His A2 soars into the heavens with such might that, on a sunny day, it rivals the blue skies and clouds in majesty. It's a riveted steel piece that invokes ship figureheads and the art deco ornamentation of streamlined trains and 1940s automobile hood ornaments.

I'm a sucker for masks and faces and Beckie Kravetz has been a mask maker. Her Reunion is a grouping of freestanding faces fashioned from clay that look like a jocular Easter Island update.

I can also tell you that this year's peaches are works of art and that the slushies are reliably good. Local food, local art—what's not to like?

Rob Weir