Two months ago, I wrote about the new exhibition Gauguin & Polynesia: An Elusive Paradise that had just opened at the Seattle Art Museum. I quoted from the exhibition description at the website, which explained that the “show highlight[ed] the complex relationship between Paul Gauguin’s work and the art and culture of Polynesia” and “includes about 60 of Gauguin’s brilliantly hued paintings, sculptures and works on paper, which are displayed alongside 60 major examples of Polynesian sculpture that fueled his search for the exotic.”
Given the circumstances of the opening evening, we did not linger over the art. We had listened to a presentation by Chiyo Ishikawa, the Susan Brotman Deputy Director for Art and Curator of European Painting and Sculpture, and Pam McClusky, Curator of Art of Africa and Oceania and eaten hors d’oeuvres before entering the exhibition. I wrote at the time that
the distinctive feature of the exhibition is its juxtaposition of Gauguin’s paintings (presented chronologically) with Polynesian sculpture and artifacts. This is surprisingly effective, as one passes from a room of paintings to a few artifacts, more paintings, an entire room of Polynesian objects, a room of woodblock prints, and so on. I wasn’t entirely convinced that I would want to see a show of 60 Gauguins, but the alternation helps to keep one’s eyes fresh and one’s interest piqued. Plus, the opening lecture oriented us well. Many of the objects were already familiar, allowing us to examine the art without fussing with the signs or bothering with the accompanying audio headsets.
Of course, it was late, we were hungry (those hors d’ouevres not quite adding up to a complete dinner), and I didn’t want to be out too late. So we didn’t give the show its due. We got a pretty good overview, which had to do. We have until the end of April to return for a closer examination. And we will.
We found ourselves in danger of not returning for that closer examination, what with our trip two weeks ago and the show closing in another week. We were down to the final two weekends, during which the show will be mobbed. But, by chance, we learned at the beginning of last week that for museum members at a suitable level (like us), it was possible to write ahead and ask for special entry at 9:15 on a Tuesday or Thursday morning, before the 10:00 opening of the museum. I wasted no time requesting entry for this past Thursday. We got the okay and headed downtown first thing in the morning.
As instructed, we entered by the volunteer door, signed in with security, then waited for a museum staff member to meet us. She brought us up to the exhibit, walking us through part of it in order to get to the start. Along the way, we passed a whole class of students being led on a tour. They looked high school age, about thirty in all, and had a one-room head start on us. Other than them, we had the place to ourselves. The woman who brought us up also got us some audio guides to use if we wished.
We worked our way through the exhibit at a slow pace, always being sure to hang back from the tour group. Over time, a few other singles and pairs arrived, moving past us and beyond the group as well. We were content to take our time. As for the audio guides, they were painful to use. When a painting or object is marked as available on the guide, one presses the three-digit code, then a man comes on to state the obvious, and slowly. The painting’s name, year, size. What’s in it — a red figure left of center, a yellow field, on and on. There was no way to skip past this. Only when he was done would he offer to have you push the play button so you could hear a commentary. He returned to say a few words, then offer curator Pam McClusky for a few words of comment. After she was done, he would make more remarks, then give the stage to her again. Forget it.
The pity is, this was the rare occasion when we could plant ourselves in front of a painting, listen to the guide, and not be in anyone’s way. (Surely this is the worst feature of these guides — the natural tendency of the listener to stay put, listening perhaps without even looking, letting time pass, acting as a blocker to all others.) But so little information was forthcoming, all the more given the high quality of the explanations on the walls.
Well, no matter. It’s a wonderful show, and we were privileged to see it on our own. I did tire of that tour group, with the guide talking non-stop. She was loud, slow, and clear, a gem of a guide for those in the group. For me, it became an increasing nuisance, like trying to read a book when someone has a TV or radio on with non-stop talk.
Only when we got to the penultimate room, holding back while the tour group finished up in the last room — the guide talking about one final painting, then about Gauguin’s career as a whole, then taking questions — did I finally lose patience and join the group. And only then did I realize what should have been obvious all along: that the guide was none other than Pam McClusky. Not that it was our place to tag along, but we surely would have learned a lot if we had. Forget the audio guide, with occasional remarks by her. We could have had her non-stop, the very non-stop chatter that had been a distraction when I tried to ignore her, but could instead have been a joy.
What I really wished is that we had chosen a day when there was no tour. But maybe the deal is that she has been leading tours of the exhibition every Tuesday and Thursday before opening hours, which is why the space is open and available to a limited number of members as well.
I suppose that’s about all I have to say. I would have wished to insert photos throughout the post of our favorite paintings and objects, but photography wasn’t permitted, and there’s nothing at the exhibition website either. If you’re in the area, be sure to see the show in the next week. Otherwise, consider getting a copy of the book, one of which we brought home with us.
Change We Can Believe In: Bug Splat
I’ve written what may seem to be more than my share of posts on US drone warfare, including one a week ago. Then again, can there be too many? Here we are, waging undeclared war around the world, killing people without warrant based on the argument that they are on the battlefield (this being an easy argument to make when you claim that the whole world is a battlefield). We can thank the Bush administration for this claim, but Obama and his enablers in the Justice Department have eagerly stuck by it. Obama won’t release full details on drone warfare or its legal justification on the grounds that that would jeopardize our security. So we continue down the path of lawlessness, making it the norm and ensuring that our security is indeed jeopardized. Some change!
But I’m no expert. For more, Michael Hastings’ article The Rise of the Killer Drones: How America Goes to War in Secret in the current Rolling Stone is essential reading. Here’s a passage from early in the article:
During the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the military conducted only a handful of drone missions. Today, the Pentagon deploys a fleet of 19,000 drones, relying on them for classified missions that once belonged exclusively to Special Forces units or covert operatives on the ground. American drones have been sent to spy on or kill targets in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Syria, Somalia and Libya. Drones routinely patrol the Mexican border, and they provided aerial surveillance over Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. In his first three years, Obama has unleashed 268 covert drone strikes, five times the total George W. Bush ordered during his eight years in office. All told, drones have been used to kill more than 3,000 people designated as terrorists, including at least four U.S. citizens. In the process, according to human rights groups, they have also claimed the lives of more than 800 civilians. Obama’s drone program, in fact, amounts to the largest unmanned aerial offensive ever conducted in military history; never have so few killed so many by remote control.
For a new generation of young guns, the experience of piloting a drone is not unlike the video games they grew up on. Unlike traditional pilots, who physically fly their payloads to a target, drone operators kill at the touch of a button, without ever leaving their base – a remove that only serves to further desensitize the taking of human life. (The military slang for a man killed by a drone strike is “bug splat,” since viewing the body through a grainy-green video image gives the sense of an insect being crushed.) As drone pilot Lt. Col. Matt Martin recounts in his book Predator, operating a drone is “almost like playing the computer game Civilization” – something straight out of “a sci-fi novel.” After one mission, in which he navigated a drone to target a technical college being occupied by insurgents in Iraq, Martin felt “electrified” and “adrenalized,” exulting that “we had shot the technical college full of holes, destroying large portions of it and killing only God knew how many people.”
Only later did the reality of what he had done sink in. “I had yet to realize the horror,” Martin recalls.
This is the warfare that Obama has embraced.
This is it, my final post from our trip to North Carolina. I’ve written about our Tuesday outing to Durham, our Wednesday outing to Greensboro, and our Thursday outing to Raleigh. But what of our base itself, Chapel Hill? All I’ve mentioned so far are our dinners at Lantern and Crook’s Corner. Surely we did more.
Well, not much more, what with setting out after breakfast each morning for another city. Here are a few notes on what I left out.
1. Tuesday, we came back from Durham in mid-afternoon, after our visits to the Duke Homestead and the Nasher Museum of Art. This was our chance to wander around town and campus. On crossing over toward the heart of campus from the Carolina Inn, we came immediately upon the building housing the UNC School of Education. I couldn’t resist dropping in, since the dean is an old friend whom I used to work with here at the university. Fortunately, he was in and had a moment, so we chatted a bit. A day later, I would have missed him, as he was heading here to Seattle.
Next we walked up to Franklin Street to the Carolina Coffee Shop for Gail, but they only had table service. They recommended Jack Sprat Café across the street, which met her needs. From there, we could walk south through the main axis of campus, leading to the Old Well. I suppose you’d have to have UNC in your veins to appreciate the well’s importance. It was once the school’s lone water source.
Today, passers-by can drink from a marble water fountain supplying city water that sits in the center of the Old Well. Campus tradition dictates that a drink from the Old Well on the first day of classes will bring good luck (or straight A’s).
The Old Well is recognized as a National Landmark for Outstanding Landscape Architecture by the American Society of Landscape Architects. The Old Well is also used on the official stamp of all apparel licensed by the university.
There was a crowd around it, with people taking turns drinking while friends or parents photographed them. I couldn’t resist taking my own turn, and Gail couldn’t resist taking the photo, which I’ll omit. More interesting is the layout of adjacent buildings, Old East Hall, Old West Hall, and South Hall. Old East is the original campus building, with construction begun in 1793 when the university (the oldest state university in the country) was established. It has since been expanded, and of course renovated, and continues to function as a dorm.
Later in our walk south, we would arrive at the university’s main library, the Wilson Library, which contains The North Carolina Collection Gallery. Joel had suggested the day before that we may find this of interest, so we took his advice and found it. There we learned of the Masonic history of the university, and in particular, the Masonic tradition that dictated the layout of the well and the three buildings. This was part of a special exhibit on the history of the campus, with some wonderful old photos.
Also in the collection are the Sir Walter Raleigh Rooms; an exhibit about the original Siamese twins Eng and Chang, who lived the final decades of their lives in North Carolina; Audobon prints; some rooms from early Carolina houses; and much more. It was a good detour.
South of the library, across a street, is the bell tower, and below that, the football stadium — Kenan Stadium. The campus drops down a hill at this point, with the stadium following this drop, so that on the north side it fits quite nicely into the surroundings. A gate was open on the north, so we wandered in and looked down on the playing field, well below us. Ringing the outside are exhibits of famous Tarheel players, such as the greatest of them all, below:
It was approaching dinner time, so we concluded our campus tour at this point and returned to the inn.
2. Dinner with Joel that night was at Mint, a surprisingly good Indian restaurant on Franklin Street a few blocks west of campus, out towards Carrboro. Gail and Joel had eaten there in July. I’m glad they thought to return, because dinner was excellent.
3. Thursday was our Raleigh day. When we got back to Chapel Hill, we conferred with Joel and discovered that we were too late to get in to a restaurant in Durham he thought worth trying. Instead, we headed over to Provence, a small restaurant in Carrboro not far from Joel. As it name suggests, it bills itself as serving regional French and Mediterranean cuisine.
Joel started with the escargots, Gail the lobster bisque, and me, well, gosh, I don’t remember what I had. Nothing that I see on the online menu. I must have had their soup of the day, some cream of something. I should have taken notes. I remember my main course, the lemon sole almandine. Gail had Beef Wellington and Joel some sort of noodle dish that again isn’t listed online. In any case, I was quite happy with my meal. But Gail’s beef was horribly burned on one side. She kept wondering what flavoring was used, until she turned it over and caught on to what had happened. We should have sent it back. It was really a disaster. Other than that, the restaurant was most pleasant.
4. You may recall that two months ago, when I first started thinking about what we might do in North Carolina, I wrote a post about an imagined day trip to Greensboro and Saxapahaw. Wednesday was our Greensboro day. Saxapahaw is a few miles off the main highway between Chapel Hill and Graham, the town where one gets on I-40 to head straight west to Greensboro. And the attraction of Saxapahaw is the Saxapahaw General Store, which had been written up in a short note in the Sunday NYT travel section in January. To quote from that article again, as I did in February:
I was polishing off a steaming bowl of coconut curry soup when a server appeared bearing a plate of plump pan-seared diver scallops atop creamy applewood-bacon succotash and braised asparagus. The food was befitting a candlelit restaurant, but I had a view of gas pumps outside and, a few steps from my table, fluorescent-lighted aisles packed with workaday necessities — toilet paper, motor oil, sauerkraut juice (aids digestion, according to the label).
This jarring contrast of farm-fresh food and service-station atmosphere is part of the appeal of the place where I was dining: the Saxapahaw General Store (1735 Saxapahaw-Bethlehem Church Road; 336-376-5332; saxgenstore.com), a no-frills convenience store and restaurant that has sparked a revival in the former mill town of Saxapahaw in central North Carolina.
On our way up to Greensboro, we didn’t want to detour, but we did on our return. The road to Saxapahaw was narrow and winding, perhaps our only drive in our time in North Carolina on which we got off main roads and got a glimpse of what backcountry North Carolina might look like. Not that this was so backcountry, just 10 miles out from Chapel Hill. We arrived at a small strip mall, with the gas pumps and store as described. As we walked in, there was a counter to the left running from the doorway to the back, with the cashier immediately to the left, then food cases, and behind was the cooking area. Running from straight ahead to the right were the store aisles, and far to the right, beyond them, were a few tables for dining. Pretty basic. But it was fun to work our way around the aisles and see what was for sale.
There was a small wine section up front by the windows, with shelves marked for French, Italian, California etc. Just to the right of that, on the top of a counter, was an array of North Carolina wines. We chose one to bring home.
I hadn’t mentioned, but over by that main counter to the left of the store is a big blackboard. Oh, you can see it in the article that headed the NYT article. Here it is, below:
[David P. Williams, NYT, January 22, 2012 edition]
When we walked in, a young woman had just begun to fill the board with the list of dinner specials. It took a while for us to figure out what was going on as far as menu offerings. The deal is that there’s an all-day menu, with menus available on the counter, but I had missed them initially. One can order sandwiches, salads, and so on. In addition, there are lunch and dinner hours, something like 11 to 2 and 5:30 to 8:00, during which one can also order the specials listed on the board. We had arrived at 4:45. Waiting for dinner wasn’t an option, since our plan was to get back to Chapel Hill for dinner with Joel. It would have been different if we were in Chapel Hill already and could have headed out with him.
We arrived as the woman was writing the first special, pan-seared diver scallops with applewood-bacon succotash — the very one featured in the NYT. She would proceed to write each main dish, then turn to the scruffy looking guy behind the cash register, announcing what she had just written. He would look upwards for a moment for inspiration, then tell her what the accompaniments would be. It became apparent that he wasn’t merely the cashier. Indeed, he was probably the chef. As the listings got added, staying became more and more tempting. We’ll have to come back next time we visit, now that we know the schedule.
That’s it for North Carolina. We had a great trip.
Two Thursdays ago, the last full day of our trip to North Carolina, we spent the day in Raleigh. I have already written about our visits to the state capitol and the North Carolina Museum of History, which are across the street from each other downtown. After a late lunch at Pharoah’s Grill, we drove out to the North Carolina Museum of Art, about a six-mile drive to the northwest, which conveniently is on the way back to Chapel Hill.
In post after post, I have expressed my wonder at the museums of Durham, Greensboro, and Raleigh. The art museum is no different, and a testament to the cultural priorities of the state. One approaches it just off a highway, in a nondescript area past some state maintenance and motor pool facilities. There’s a parking lot just off the road, with the unpromising view ahead and down the hill of the building pictured above. Leaving the lot, one can choose a path into the woods, which is the start of the Museum Park. Or one can take a path down to a plaza, with the older east building on one side and the newer west building to the other. The signs indicate that the east building has temporary exhibitions and a membership desk, while the west has the permanent collection.
We chose to start in the west. A friendly woman gave us the visitor’s guide, with maps of the two buildings, plus a guide to the park. It was already past 3:00 PM when we got started, and we quickly realized that we would have to be content with a sampling of the collection.
The west building is all on one level. Whatever you may make of its appearance from the outside, it’s quite wonderful indoors. The walls and ceiling admit an enormous amount of natural light, all filtered by drapes. We learned later from a security guard who attached himself to us that the building opened just two years ago. When it was being built, passersby would think it was a warehouse. Our guard-turned-guide taught high school history in Maryland for 30 years, after undergraduate studies in art history. He and his wife moved down to the Raleigh area five years ago to be near their daughter and grandchildren. Now he gets to spend his days with art while his wife spends hers with the grandchildren.
The museum overview tells us a bit about the museum’s collection:
Since the initial acquisition in 1947 of 139 works of European and American art, purchased with a $1 million appropriation of state funds, the collection of the North Carolina Museum of Art has grown to include major holdings in European painting from the Renaissance to the 19th century (enhanced in 1960 by an extraordinary gift from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation of 75 works dating primarily from the Italian Renaissance and baroque periods), Egyptian funerary art, sculpture and vase painting from ancient Greece and Rome, American art of the 18th through 20th centuries, and international contemporary art. Other strengths include African, ancient American, pre-Columbian, and Oceanic art, and Jewish ceremonial objects. (The NCMA houses one of only two permanent displays of Jewish art in an American art museum.)
The Museum is actively building the collection with recent acquisitions, including a gift from the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Foundation of 30 works by Auguste Rodin, making the NCMA the leading repository of this artist’s work in the southeastern United States. … The 164-acre Museum Park is home to more than a dozen monumental works of art, with artists actively involved in the restoration of the Park’s landscape and the integration of art into its natural systems.
We started our tour with the Renaissance paintings. The Kress Foundation gave gifts of European art to dozens of museums across the country, including our own Seattle Art Museum. It’s not my impression that we’ve built much on it here in Seattle, the SAM having pursued other areas in its acquisitions. But the NCMA has a stronger European painting collection than I anticipated, due as much to state purchases as the Kress gift.
One quirky addition to the collection is Devorah Sperber’s 2005 After the Mona Lisa 2, inadequately pictured below.
It is described at Sperber’s website as “an enlarged rendering of The Mona Lisa’s face. When seen with the aid of viewing spheres, distorted views of The Mona Lisa’s smile mimic ‘low spatial frequencies’ usually seen only with peripheral vision. Unlike the original painting, in which the illusion of the smile is subtle, in my rendition The Mona Lisa’s elusive smile appears, changes, and disappears in a dramatic and humorous fashion.” Or, as explained at the Coats & Clark website:
The North Carolina Museum of Art has recently chosen an installation by contemporary New York-based artist Devorah Sperber titled “After The Mona Lisa 2.” This work comprises 5,184 spools of Coats Dual Duty thread as the “color palette” to re-create a detail from Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting.
Sperber has transformed one of the most well-known works in the history of art by inverting and enlarging it over 200 times to 85 by 87 inches. Viewing the work through an acrylic sphere that is part of the installation mimics peripheral vision, turning the image right side up and shrinking it back to a recognizable size.
In her work Sperber explores the reproduction of images in the digital era, links between art and technology, and visual perception – how the eye and brain make sense of the visual world.
I suppose I’m giving this one work more attention than it deserves. But it was fun to see.
As for the Rodin collection, that took us by surprise. We might have thought we had turned a corner from Les Invalides and stumbled into the Musée Rodin. (We stayed just around the corner from it during the Paris portion of our honeymoon and returned in November 2009, it being a favorite of Gail’s.) But no, we were still in Raleigh. The high ceilings and natural light of the interior Rodin Court show the pieces off to good effect. Just beyond the court are doors opening onto the Rodin Garden, with sculptures arrayed on a lawn surrounding a pool. I have one photo of the garden in my coming attractions post. Here’s another:
Next we explored the Judaic collection. The display space is limited, but filled with astonishing objects, but old and contemporary.
The gallery and its collection were founded by the late Dr. Abram Kanof, a physician and respected scholar of Jewish art and symbolism. It is one of only two galleries devoted to Judaica in an American art museum. Since opening in 1983, the gallery has attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors, the majority of whom are not Jewish and are largely unfamiliar with Judaism’s rich and diverse artistic heritage. Inspired by Dr. Kanof, the Museum has wholeheartedly embraced the role of the Judaic Art Gallery as a forum for religious and cultural understanding, acknowledging as well that ideas are often best communicated through memorable works of art.
The Judaic Art Gallery features objects from the major Jewish traditions—Ashkenazic, Sephardic, and Oriental (or Mizrahi)—as well as from modern Israel. All objects are designed for use in synagogue worship, observance of the Sabbath and holidays, or ceremonial occasions honoring the life cycle and Jewish home. Highlights of the collection include a splendid pair of mid-18th-century silver and gilt Torah finials (rimmonim), originally part of the treasury of the Great Synagogue of Amsterdam; a large standing Hanukkah lamp, circa 1930, one of the masterpieces of the “Hebrew style” from Jerusalem’s celebrated Bezalel Workshop; a finely filigreed case for an Esther scroll from the Ottoman Empire; and an elegant pair of silver finals and matching Torah pointer (yad) dated 1783 from the Orthodox Synagogue in Plymouth, England. Important new objects continue to be added to the collection thanks to the generosity of the Friends of the Judaic Art Gallery. The long-term acquisition plan is directed toward broadening the survey of Judaica to include objects from all important Diaspora communities as well as Israel. Special consideration will be given to ritual objects of North Carolina and southern origin. In addition the plan calls for an ongoing program of commissions from leading American and international designers.
My photos of these objects didn’t come out too well. It was Passover while we were there, so let me focus on two examples of Passover Seder plates. The first is extraordinary, but my shot is hopelessly blurred. Below are three levels for the three pieces of matzoh. At top is the Seder plate itself, with separate figures each holding up a bowl to display the assorted traditional items — the bitter herbs, the charoset, the karpas, etc.
The second is a modern rendering of the same concept.
It was getting late, and we still wanted to explore the museum park. After a brief look at the museum store, we headed back up the hill and onto the walkway. We didn’t get far, only far enough to round the first big curve and see the first two pieces, Vollis Simpson’s Wind Machine
and Thomas Sayre’s Gyre (with pedestrians).
The complete loop walk is about two and a half miles. Next time we’ll plan better. But on this day, we had to head out, so we could be back in Chapel Hill for dinner with Joel.
What a fabulous museum!