Monday, December 13, 2010

Leon Golub at The Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago Ave.

Great art is magnetic. It should make you stop in your tracks, allowing you to see something differently or provoke some sort of reaction and/or dialogue. It should make you feel something, for the worst thing that art can do is be mediocre to the full extent of the word.
Fortunately enough, in a world full of mediocre art to sift through, “Head II”, painted by Leon Golub, is anything but mediocre. Displayed in a top floor exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, “Head II” is not the largest, brightest colored, or owner of the most interesting title. And yet, it manages to attract the eye.
            As one would gather from the title, the composition consists of a human head. Attention is drawn to the left eye and the mouth since these are the most concentrated shapes. Cleverly enough, this is consistent with our visual focus when engaging in face-to-face conversation; we tend to look at one eye at a time and fill in auditory gaps with cues from the lips. The head itself is also rather androgynous, allowing the viewer a greater option to connect the sentiment of the painting to themselves or anyone else they see fit. This reveals the entire foundation of the piece to be highly universal and intimately personal.
            The palate is exceptionally muted, consisting mostly of neutral colors: off-whites, grey-browns, and beiges. To provide a stronger sense of line though, Golub highlights aspects of the face with umber, black, and ultramarine blue. The effect is both clean and stunning.
            Texturally, the best way to describe “Head II” is raw. The painting is patchy and exposed with layers of paint peeled back and scraped away, only to make room for additional layers destined to endure the same process. Combined with his use of eroded lacquer-based paint (a solvent-based paint that leaves a shiny, hard, durable finish), the result is an incredibly weathered feel.
            The best part about this painting is the numerous possibilities for rich interpretation. Maybe it’s about growing old. Maybe it’s about ancestry. Maybe it’s about impermanence. You could stand there for hours coming up with new ways to look at it without relying on some long-winded conceptual explanation to provide meaning or that simply gets in the way.
            So keep on staring. This piece is worth it.

Monday, November 29, 2010

“The L Word” (Season 1, episode 2: “Let’s Do It,” Showtime)

            Love, lust, life, and, above all else, lesbianism. These are the foundational themes that “The L Word” prides itself on. It’s the lesbian version of “Queer As Folk” (another Showtime drama about gay men) following the lives of a lesbian group of friends with a specific focus on romance and sexuality, filled with pseudo soap-opera complications and a wide variety of personalities. Although this is big step for the lesbian community as a whole, the show is incredibly disappointing.
            The second episode (which might as well be considered the first episode since pilots never seem to accurately represent any show’s potential) contains few intriguing plot elements, and fails to go about the ones that are in an intriguing way. Bette and Tina, a longtime couple trying to have a baby together, employ do-it-yourself at home artificial insemination. Although the sex scene is tasteful, it’s unnecessarily long and feels more like a cheap trick to get more viewers than an expression of the emotional intensity of the act. Alice, a single woman, gets begins the get tangled up with her possibly abusive ex-girlfriend while her friends attempt to talk her out of it with their unconvincing and half-hearted acting skills.
            Beyond the boredom factor, the show successfully exploits lesbian stereotyping. While there are some occasional attempts to reconcile these in the dialogue, they only serve to provide the show with hypocritical undertones. For example, Dana, a professional tennis player, is pining over beautiful Lara, the sous-chef at the club Dana trains at, but doesn’t want to approach Lara until she figures out whether or not Lara is a lesbian. First off, bisexuality isn’t even acknowledged as a possibility. This is not only insulting (especially after they make a point to say that sexuality is fluid), but it also perpetuates the already overbearing sexual dichotomy of gay and straight. Secondly, Dana proceeds to turn to her friends for “gaydar” opinions. High heels are obviously straight while wielding a chopping knife is inherently lesbian? Thanks for the suffocating little boxes, Showtime.
            Fortunately, episode 2 isn’t nearly as socially damaging as the pilot, which leaves hope for the rest of the show. However, women regardless of whether they’re gay, straight, or somewhere in-between should be offended. Lesbians, for one, aren’t novelty items and shouldn’t be objectified or exploited. Women—in fact, people in general—shouldn’t be crammed into looking a certain way or arranging their personalities to fit any societal expectations. Feminine doesn’t equate to straight in the same way that masculine doesn’t equate to gay. Haven’t these false assumptions done enough damage already?
            Either “The L Word” needs to shape up or we need a better show.

Alanis Morissette, “Jagged Little Pill Acoustic” (Maverick, 2005)

            Alanis Morissette’s “Jagged Little Pill” is a beast. First released in June of 1995, this well loved album didn’t take long to become an instant staple in the CD collections of angry women across the globe, particularly in the United States. 10 years later, the pop/rock singer-songwriter released an acoustic version of “Jagged Little Pill” that is, perhaps, more daring than the original.
            What makes a great album great is honesty—something that Morissette has managed to stay faithful to despite countless accusations that she’s just an angst-ridden bitch. The acoustic version, however, takes the sentiment of the lyrics a few steps further. Raw, slightly down-tempo versions of her songs allow her to clear away all the clutter of the standard pop album and truly showcase the emotional quality of her words in every single track. Additionally, the beauty of her quirky Canadian voice is allowed to dance around your ears in a new and playful way, regardless of whether she’s simply ornamenting her phrases with catchy pop licks or singing nonsensical syllables during instrumental breaks. Don’t worry though—she still has the same bite. Only now it’s highlighted with a sense of maturity.
            By taking an unexpectedly gentle approach to the album, listeners are not only surprised by her calmer side but are also provided with the same intimacy of sitting in on a living room style private concert. Songs like “Mary Jane” and “Perfect” feel like heart to heart conversations while hits like “Head Over Feet” and “Hand in my Pocket” feel fresh and more profound without compromising their ability to get stuck in your head. Interestingly enough, it also makes angrier songs such as “You Oughta’ Know” sound angrier, only in a darker and brooding way.
            Morisette makes a minor but clever lyrical change to “Ironic”, which is arguably her biggest hit to date: “It’s like 10,000 spoons when all you need is a knife/ It’s meeting the man of my dreams and meeting his beautiful husband.” Little jokes of the same caliber are sprinkled throughout the album for those familiar with the original release. However, those who have yet to familiarize themselves with the music can still get a lot out of listening.
            Re-releasing this album is daring because it’s considered to be one of the top albums of the 90’s. By deconstructing to acoustic, Morisette is potentially challenging her fans in the same way that her single “Thank You” a few years after the release of “Jagged Little Pill”. However, she could not have made a better decision. This new take on the album is truly a masterpiece.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

"Dogtooth" (Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, 2009)

When was the last time you walked out of a movie theater laughing? Okay, now when was the last time that laughter was a breed of nervous, serving only to relieve tension in the aftermath of the film? Dogtooth (Kynodontas), a Greek drama and dark comedy, leaves little room for any other reaction.
It is the story of a Greek husband and father (Christos Stergioglou) whose highest priority is to protect the innocence of his now teenage children. To do this, he has confined his son (Hristos Passalis) and two daughters (Aggeliki Papoulia and Mary Tsoni), along with his wife (Michele Valley), to an isolated country estate where they are home schooled and spend their days playing oddly childish games, protecting the property from house cats, and learning the “real” meanings of words (ie: zombies are “little yellow flowers” and a cunt is a “large lamp”). Early on in the film, the father starts bringing home a female security guard, Christina (Anna Kalaitzidou), to satisfy his son’s libidinal urges. However, she ends up doing more than just fucking his son.
The rest of the film follows changes in family dynamic and individual characters, especially that of the protagonist eldest daughter, during and after Christina’s interactions with the family. Filled with disturbing abnormal sexuality, instances of physical violence reminiscent of Fight Club, and unexpected American pop culture references, it is impossible to predict much between scenes. Heightened by intense cinematography and camera angles designed to intimately weave viewers into the fabric of the film, it is personal to the fullest meaning of the word.
              In 94 minutes, Dogtooth says more about social conditioning, parenting, and the human condition than the vast majority of films. Exploring the notion that ripened fruit will rot if it doesn’t fall from the tree, this satire may very well make you laugh, cringe, and look away from time to time. Considering that we live in a cinematic world of bubble gum chick flicks and cheesy male fantasy action films, this movie is challenging in a rare and beautiful way.

"Dogtooth" Trailer & Additional Information

Monday, October 4, 2010

Finally! A Place That Doesn't Charge Extra for Soy Milk!

            Fritz Pastry is a local cafĂ© and bakery located in Lakeview/Lincoln Park at Southport and Diversey. Specializing specifically in European inspired pastries baked daily, this inviting establishment has much to offer from assorted Danish, macarons, and quiche to coffee, tea, and caffeine free beverages. With a warm, inviting atmosphere, attentive staff, and quirky music selection of jazz, folk, and indie rock, this laid back establishment is easy to spend hours at reading your favorite book or casually flipping through the piles of food and wine magazines. Paired with their Vegan, vegetarian, and gluten free options, you’d be hard pressed to find a more fulfilling hang out.
            Their most popular item, the chocolate croissant, is a rich, buttery indulgence that leaves you feeling satisfied. Served warm, the outside layer is perfectly crispy and flaky, concealing a soft and fluffy inside covered in melted dark chocolate. Sweet, but not too sweet, this will not be a disappointment, especially when paired with a hot cup of bergamot or hot cocoa on a chilly day.
            Offered daily are among their Vegan-friendly choices of coffee cake, doughnuts, and cupcakes, are blueberry muffins that prove animals products are not a necessity for delicious baked goods. Dense, moist, cakey, and a generous ratio of blueberries, these wholesome muffins are the perfect breakfast. The top, firm, crunchy, and covered in streusel provides a sophisticated texture variation from the soft center. For chocolate lovers, their double chocolate muffins are comparable to cakey brownies stuffed with chocolate chips.
            What about lunch though? For savory treats, one can choose from a daily selection of soups, salads, quiche, and sandwiches. Included is an egg salad sandwich puts all other recipes to shame. Served on a soft, light roll and topped with fresh, crisp lettuce, the eggs are appropriately light and fluffy with a healthy coating of mayonnaise that doesn’t overpower. The side is a chilled mound of spiced carrots, bathed in a light, tart, and tangy balsamic vinaigrette. Feel free to mop up the vinaigrette with your sandwich—the flavors more than compliment each other.
            What sets Fritz Pastry apart from many other establishments aside from their mouth-watering sustenance, are their ethics. Their self-proclaimed favorite things listed on their website include, “local ingredients, sustainably raised produce, Sarica coffee and espresso, Intelligentsia organic loose tea, local artists, Chicago, from-scratch, the three-‘R’s [reduce, reuse, recycle], vegetarian-friendly dishes, [and] community.” Not only will you be filling your belly with happiness, but you will also be filling your community and planet with it as well.

Fritz Pastry

Monday, September 27, 2010

"Opinions are like assholes and all..." (Don Hall)

Don Hall is an entertainingly sarcastic critic and creator of the blog An Angry White Guy in Chicago. Although he primarily reviews theater, he has been known to post his opinions about news, politics, web videos, and his mom. For example, while explaining his choice to write about an article about the former Bush Administration and the war in Iraq, he said, “[…] instead of looking back and trying to pin the most expensive and misguided war in the history of the United States' existence on someone, we should focus on the economy and the global warming and the fucktarded Tea Party taking over the government and the fact that Lindsey Lohan is an addict and that Ashton Kutcher finally slept with a woman his own age.”

This same attitude applies to his take on criticism as both a lifelong passion and profession, regardless of whether or not he is paid to do it. In a discussion article orchestrated by Kris Vire in Timeout Chicago (that included several accomplished Chicago critics), Hall rhetorically asks the group, “So is it courage or just a stubborn need to express our opinion?” In a world where the job market for critics is ever shrinking in regard to monetary compensation for their writing, this is rather profound. One can argue that they’re passionate or well educated, but if they aren’t pushed forward by an obstinate need to articulate whatever the reaction is towards any cultural phenomena, how can they be successful?

Beyond this, during the same discussion with Vire, Hall was able to consolidate the most crucial characteristic of a great critic: “In order to appropriately criticize, a dollop of self-awareness is necessary—knowing your own prejudices, etc.” The critics that are worth reading (or at least paying attention to) consider their biases when they write. You can’t accurately critique anything until you can accurately critique yourself. Without this “dollop of self-awareness”, the article is inevitably tainted because the reaction isn’t 100% honest. Like when people are freaked out by soy products, yet loudly declare that Vegan cuisine is disgustingly bland. In most cases, these people tried something once and entirely base their opinion on that single experience.

Which leads to the final point—criticism needs to be backed by knowledge. Above all else, ill informed opinions are basically worthless. With that said, one can still adequately critique French pastries without undergoing years of culinary training or residing in France for several years. However, if one has never tasted a croissant and has no idea how one is made, research and tasting is necessary. This goes hand in hand with being able to take criticism as well. Feedback in invaluable: “I like the comments from the readers. I like it when they call me an ass. I get a lot of angry e-mails—I try to answer them. The debate is the ‘sharpening stone’” (Don Hall). If outside opinions are disregarded, the writer might as well just lay face down on the floor and admit that they can’t provide substantial evidence to support their own words. Don't fucking waste my time.

Timeout Chicago - Chicago's Top Taste Makers Discuss Why They Critique Culture - by Kris Vire

Don Hall - An Angry White Guy in Chicago

Monday, September 20, 2010

What Makes a Review Good or Bad? Let's See...

Specificity is crucial in terms of any criticism, for this is what makes a good review. Not only is it essential to communicate why something is good or bad, but also to provide substantial support for the analysis. With that said, this is why the Critic’s Choice in the music section of The New York Times is thorough while The Cold Cut (blog) is lacking. And this is far from surprising.

On September 19th, 2010, the Critic’s Choice featured Jon Pareles’ review of Santana’s album, Guitar Heaven: The Greatest Guitar Classics of All Time. What made this both successful and insightful are his frequent references to high profile musicians from several decades. Granted, he has the advantage of reviewing a cover album of popular songs between 1960 and 1990, however, it is possible to focus entirely on other categories of analysis with only brief mentions of these artists for entirely contextual purposes. These highly accessible references provide the reader with an established foundation while they navigate through the article. One gets an idea of what the album actually sounds like. Beyond this, Pareles doesn’t slack off in his analysis. There are frequent timberal and stylistic descriptions of both Santana’s signature guitar and his guest artist’s vocals, “George Harrison’s ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ becomes a breathy ballad sung by India.Arie, with cello obbligatos from the overqualified Yo-Yo Ma.” Opinons of market value are also included: “These oldies tend to stay close to the original arrangements and vocal phrasing, perhaps hoping that familiarity can sneak them onto the radio.”

In contrast, The Cold Cut posted a review of Imogen Heap’s album “Ellipse” on July 16th, 2009. The author doesn’t even bother to provide readers with a last name, opting simply for “Will” as the entirety of his nom de plume. And this isn’t the worst of it. The post begins with a writer’s block disclaimer that shares an opinion that writer’s block is an equivalent to laziness before even acknowledging the impending review. This should have been a separate entry since it only serves to further diminish the author’s credibility. The review itself is rather short and assuming, focusing on an album that had yet to be released. Barely touching base on what makes Imogen Heap an immensely talented artist, “Will” attempts to boil down the essence of an album that he/she hasn’t even heard yet into a single paragraph, comparing the future single and opening track of “Ellipse” to “Hide and Seek”, another Imogen Heap single from 2005, “Remember ‘Hide & Seek’? Of course you do […]”

Reviewing the arts, or anything for that matter, is comparable to explaining what something looks or tastes or sounds like to someone who tragically lost the use of such sensations mid-life. Since the target audience consists of people who haven't experienced the subject of the review (yet, perhaps), the goal is to describe and discuss the album, book, film, or whatever it may be in a way that will make sense. Otherwise, what point is there in reading the review to begin with?

The New York Times: Critic's Choice - Santana Review by Jon Pareles
The Cold Cut - Imogen Heap Review

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Uh...What is this?

Created for "Reviewing the Arts: Honors" at Columbia College Chicago during Fall 2010.

Course Description

Students are introduced to the fundamental critical skills necessary for a sensitive reading of works in different art forms such as drama, fiction, painting, photography, music, and cinema. Students write reviews of concerts, albums, plays, films, and gallery exhibitions, and, as befitting a more intensive honors class, produce writing of publishable quality.

This is what I'll be doing for the next 15 weeks. We'll see what I can come up with.