People and Places


Posted on November 22, 2008

On our trip to New York this week Pat and I stayed at The Gem Hotel in the East Village. Calling it a “gem” may have been putting a “little fluff on it,” as the Irish say. The room didn’t really have enough space for an open suitcase and there was no actual closet. That said, it was a block away from a Whole Foods supermarket — now I understand why people call it “Whole Paycheck” — and we were able to assemble a lovely in-room picnic dinner when we arrived late Wednesday evening.

I’ve spent a lot of time in New York (see my earlier post for why) and the lower end of the island has become my favorite area as it retains some of the funkiness and edge that has been largely gentrified out of most of Manhattan. Our East Village location was next to NYU and full of the little cafes, bars, bookstores, and galleries that recall a more bohemian New York of the past. We had a spare couple of hours on Friday and visited the aptly named New Museum in the Bowery, the first actually new museum to open in New York in years.

The major exhibit was a retrospective of Elizabeth Peyton’s portraits, mostly oil on canvas realism of a sort, though every subject seemed to look like a variation on Kurt Cobains’ face whether male or female, famous subject or not. The other exhibit was of Mary Heilman’s colorfully exuberant canvasses, though her work uncomfortably evoked the “Hey, I could do that!” sentiments of my family members who are skeptical of much contemporary and abstract art.

Growing up in a working class family it really wasn’t until college that I developed any understanding of art and while I acquired a growing appreciation for art, the confidence to talk about it took longer. One of the benefits of hitting fifty is no longer pretending to like or even understand everything I see mounted on a gallery wall.

On the other hand, I find myself increasingly drawn to contemporary art that does sometimes baffle me and some of the best I’ve seen has been in China during recent visits. District 798 is a collection of galleries and studios located in an old munitions factory in Beijing. It’s getting a little upscale now, but it reminds me of how energizing art can be when making art is dangerous. Chinese artists often flirt with the boundaries of what will be acceptable to the Party, how much social critique can be presented, and finding ways to make those critiques in artistically interesting ways.

When art gets overtly political it often gets heavy-handed, but I like the idealism and courage and intensity of the artists and I find all three too often missing in the more decadent west, at least with some of the darlings of the New York and London and Paris art scene. Seeing Damien Hirst’s shark suspended in formaldehyde in the Saatchi Gallery some years ago made me feel like I was being had and aside from quickly subsiding minor shock value, the piece evoked neither wonder nor disquietude.

While on vacation in Syria last spring we had dinner at the Foreign Journalists Club, a smoke-filled gathering place for poets and writers and artists straight out of the 1940s. A chain-smoking Syrian playwright joined us and with looks over his shoulder and in half-whispered tones he described his new play and his battle with the government censors. I don’t know if his play is any good, but I loved his conviction that art can make the world a better, not just prettier, place.

Note: After writing this post there was a detailed review and defense of Peyton in today’s NY Times.  It didn’t much alter my opinion, but it provides a much more positive take if you are interested.

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