Currently On View at Mt Holyoke: Not Enough Info

Like/Life: Photography by Martine Gutierrez
Promise of the Infinite: Joan Jonas
Afterlives of Objects/Conflict and Commemoration
Mount Holyoke Afire
Mount Holyoke Museum of Art
Through June 2019

Readers of this blog know that I often prefer smaller, more intimate exhibitions to brain-numbing blockbusters. Is there such a thing as too small? Yes. Several shows at Mount Holyoke College (MHC) cross that line.

Let's start with what Mount Holyoke does right. MHC has always prided itself on being a teaching museum that uses its collection to supplement what takes place in the classroom. An exhibit titled Afterlives of Objects uses the permanent collection as "biographies;" that is, it discusses the object, its origins, and how it ended up in a college art museum. Good idea. The most powerful statements concern adaptive reuse of materials, such as what appears from a distance to be an African-style mask, but which is actually an assemblage of shoes. The overall theme, though, is an important one in an age where hard questions are asked about the appropriateness of collection methods. Does a Mende dance mask teach us about traditional cultures in modern Sierra Leone, or does it exoticize in patronizing ways?

This struck me as a much more profound strain of inquiry than another teaching exhibit Conflict & Commemoration. I breezed through this one because it seemed so obvious. It purports to look at loss and the aftereffects of war. The paintings and objects chosen tell us little that we don't know. The message is that war is a bad thing that kills, destroys, and has lasting impact. Duh! Other than neo-fascists and Nietzsche junkies, who would argue otherwise? The exhibit mostly sidesteps the question of whether conflict is necessary in the first place.

The museum's current featured exhibits underwhelm. Eighty-two-year-old visual artist Joan Jonas, a Mount Holyoke alum, is considered by many to be the "Mother of all Performance Artists." Perhaps she is, but this form of art runs into meta problems when it's on display in a museum. Put simply, once stripped of its very nature–performance–the artistry is easily lost. How interesting is grainy footage of naked people standing in a row while other semi-naked people don mirrored assemblages that refract the view of the lineup? Not very.

The featured MHC show at present is Life/Look, a collection of photographs by Martine Gutierrez (b. 1989), a transgendered Latinx. Hers is a thought-provoking display, but it's also a classic one-trick pony. Gutierrez wishes us to analyze our own gaze, as well as explore gender roles and boundaries. To that end, she poses flesh-and-blood women–often dressed in retro style–in a variety of poses: languid, sensual, whimsical, vaguely erotic, ironic…. She juxtaposes her living subjects with life-life mannequins that call attention to the Life/Look title of the show.

I liked Gutierrez's work, but the show is too small and is tucked away in vest-pocket-sized gallery. The images are strong but once you "get" it, there's not much more to whet the appetite. Her past work provokes thoughts on race, fashion, disembodiment, and fluid sexuality. She infers these themes in Life/Look as well, but the show's small size reduces Gutierrez's politics to the realm of novelty. In a word, what we need is: more.

I also couldn't escape the fact that the most extensive feature show is "Mount Holyoke Afire," which shows the aftermath of three disastrous campus fires. The one in 1896 destroyed the college's original seminary building. Those in 1912 and 1922 also wiped out some of the college's past. It is a nicely done exhibit that looks at those who battled the blazes as well as campus remembrances of the fires. Would that several of the other shows been equally well curated.

Rob Weir



Frida Kahlo and Graciela Itrubide at MFA

Frida Kahlo and Arte Popular (through June 16)
Graciela Iturbide's Mexico  (through May 12)
Boston Museum of Fine Arts

{Apologies for the orange tint on some photos. Someone forgot to reset the white balance on the camera!}
Did you ever go to a museum psyched to see a particular exhibit only to be blown away by another that you hadn't given a second thought? This was my experience at a recent trip to Boston's Museum of Fine Arts (MFA). There's nothing at all wrong with the MFA's Frida Kahlo blockbuster, but photographer Graciela Iturbide steals the show.

Frida Kahlo and Arte Popular is the MFA's entrée into "Fridamania," a term coined in the late 1970s to describe the robust interest in (and soaring prices of) Kahlo's art and unorthodox life. Perhaps some of you have seen Julie Taymor's film Frida (2003) that cast the glorious Salma Hayek in the title role. Kahlo (1907-54) was born in Mexico to a German father and a mestiza (European/Indian mix) mother. She was an artistic wonder and a committed communist by the time she met and married Diego Rivera in 1928. The two had a tempestuous on/off relationship marked by sexual libertinism (bisexuality on Kahlo's part), political involvement, professional jealousy, mutual independence, and alcohol-fueled arguments, but they were also drawn to each other like moths to a flame. Kahlo's life was cut short by the ravages of polio and a degenerative spine condition that led to amputation of part of her right leg. She was in such pain that many consider her death to have been a suicide.

No fairy tale ending for Frida Kahlo, but few would doubt her artistic genius. The MFA considered it a coup when it was able to purchase her Dos Mujeres (Two Women), and its current show is an attempt to build off that acquisition. The problem, of course, is what to say about Kahlo that hasn't already been revealed during the various waves of Fridamania. The MFA opted to explore the influence of Mexican popular culture–arte popular–on her work. They present her as someone akin to Georgia O'Keeffe, whose time in Taos, New Mexico was marked by immersion into indigenous cultures. Kahlo was also of a middle-class background, but she presented herself as the embodiment of Mexican folk culture. Her very clothing was a canvas upon which she called attention to Mexican folkways, hues, and designs. If one wished to be uncharitable, one could say hers was fashionista peasantry, though my take is that was bohemian to the core.
The MFA spotlights Kahlo's inspirations: toys, icons, art, effigies, and retablos (religious art).  Kahlo was fascinated by Day of the Dead pageantry and it shows up in her art. The surrealist movement, especially the works of André Breton, also entranced her. The MFA was able to borrow several Kahlo paintings to supplement its exhibit. I really enjoyed it, but I wouldn't call it revelatory. Mostly it's a testament to Kahlo's influences and a reminder–if anyone needs one–of her talent. I suppose one might also say it's also a case study of how art imitates life.

Graciela Itrubide was a revelation. I had previously seen a famed shot of a woman wearing iguanas
in her hair, but had no idea it was taken by Itrubide (b. 1922). After seeing more than 125 of Itrubide's black and white photos, I felt embarrassed that her name previously rang no bells. She covered some of the same terrain as Frida Kahlo–she even took shots inside Kahlo's bathroom that spotlighted her physical struggles–but Iturbide sees herself as a realist who shoots what she sees without composing her subjects. Her take on life is unvarnished, but she see also captures the magic and beauty of the plebian.

This Iturbide show features some of her work with indigenous peoples in areas such as Seri women from Sonora and those from Juchitán (Oaxaca). Her Mujer Ángel is a stunner. A ghostly veiled figure has her back to us, her skirts billowing in the wind. She appears to be staring across the barren landscape in front of her. But if she's an apparition, she's traveling with her favorite tunes. Note the boom box in her right hand! 

Itrubide delights in everyday unintended irony, a bicycle tricked out as a bull, birds circling a crossed-shaped telephone pole as if heralding the apocalypse, a man resting in front of a mural of the Bride of Death. Like Frida Kahlo, Itrubide knows that death is woven into the fabric of everyday life–she lost a six-year-old daughter–and presents Day of the Dead costumed figures, but she also films literal death. Itrubide always asks for permission to film and two of her more distressing subjects are of the sacrificial slaughter of lambs and of a funeral procession of a family burying a small child. Along the route lay an anonymous dead man–murdered. As she explains in a superb video, when she's away from the camera she weeps, but when looking through the lens she detaches and shoots what she sees. If such subjects are too hard for you, rest assured that Itrubide also shoots gardens, birds, and other such subjects. As noted, this is a large retrospective. 

Now that I know about Graciela Itrubide, I can't stop searching for more images. Hers is truly astonishing work. Get yourself to the MFA before this show closes on May 12. 

Rob Weir


Puzzle: Missing Pieces = Mediocre Film

Puzzle (2018)
Directed by Marc Turtletaub
Sony Picture Classics, 103 minutes, R (language)

In the age of blow-‘em-up/shoot-‘em-up movies, I wanted to be charmed by a low-key tale of a suburban housewife who finds her Mojo through putting together crossword puzzles. Alas, Puzzle is all heart, but no body. Watching it is, if I may, about as interesting as watching someone assemble a jigsaw.

Agnes (Kelly Macdonald) is a good smalltown Catholic girl who has always done what she’s supposed to do, which is to attend church and take care of her home, her husband Louie (David Denman), and her two nearly grown sons: Gabe and Ziggy. Her life is one filled with such predictability that when the morning alarm goes off she knows exactly what each household member will say and how her day will unfold.

Agnes gets a small jolt on her birthday when she receives a cake she baked herself, an iPhone, and a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle. It’s the last that alters her, not the food or the (unwanted) phone. Agnes zips through the puzzle and is so hooked that she takes the train into New York City to buy more. There she sees a flyer from a person seeking a partner for an upcoming puzzle competition. Who knew there was such a thing as competitive puzzling, let alone a doubles category? Agnes is shy to the point of being socially inept, but she screws up her courage and meets Robert (Irrfan Khan), a rich, recently divorced inventor who lives in a fabulous New York City townhouse. The two connect on several levels.

Agnes lies to Louie so she can commute two days a week into New York instead of having dinner on the table when he comes home from working in his debt-saddled garage. Working-class dynamics are the best thing about Puzzled. Louie’s not a bad egg, just a boring one. He and his family live within commuter rail distance of Manhattan, but they are a million miles away culturally, socially, and economically. None has been to college and it doesn't look like there will be enough money for Gabe to attend—not that he cares all that much. Ziggy works with his dad in the garage and hates it; he thinks he’d rather be a chef. None of this makes sense to Louie, whose ambitions stop at paying bills and getting some down time to go fishing. He certainly doesn’t understand why Agnes is so obsessed with puzzles, so Agnes tells him she is taking care of an aunt when she’s actually seeing Robert for puzzles and more.

Right away we have a problem. Puzzle isn’t a thousand-piece drama; more like just four. Will Agnes and Robert win the competition? Will Gabe stop being a slacker? Can Ziggy escape the garage and follow his bliss? Most of all, now that Agnes has tasted forbidden fruit, can her marriage survive? It would take powerful performances to transform such thin material. Alas, this is not in the offing.

Kelly Macdonald simply isn’t dynamic enough to carry the picture. She is called upon to be naïve, dutiful, and dull. If anything, she is too good at those tasks. Her affect is so colorless and flat that there’s nothing about her that would attract a guy like Robert. Nor is there much there to suggest that any sort of change is possible. We see small amounts of pique here and there, but Macdonald's overall performance seems more suitable for a film about accountancy. Khan isn’t much more interesting in a role that calls upon him to be, at turns, exotic, mysterious, mentoring, and (mildly) libidinous. He seems much better at moping, actually. The less said about Martin Abrams (Gabe) and Bubba Weiler (Ziggy), the better. Each is little more than (ahem!) a cutout whose back-stories feel like script padding.

Denman is the strongest actor in the cast. He does a deft job portraying Louie, a blue-collar worker who strips life to its basics. Louie is the kind of individual I knew well when growing up. He works hard and tries to do the right thing, but he understands duty and routine far better than desire or nuance. Denman does this so well, that we both like him and want to slap him to make him to wake up.

There is nothing remarkable about the cinematography or direction, so this affords a perfect opportunity to vent about a few other things. First, this film is rated R for language. Isn’t it time for the MPAA to join the 21st century? Partial nudity can still obtain a PG-13 rating but, though the word “fuck” is ubiquitous these days, a single F-bomb can bring an R rating. It’s as if it’s okay for bare breasts or a naked behind to suggest sex, but heaven forbid anyone use a word that connotes it.

Rant number two is that Puzzle is actually an English-language remake of the 2010 Argentinean film Rompecabezas. It’s not exactly a shot-by-shot remake, but it’s worth asking why the American film industry wastes so much time and money badly remaking foreign films instead of coming up with some interesting new ideas. Puzzle is indeed puzzling, but not in a good way. Like its poster, there's a piece–or two or three–missing.

Rob Weir