Lenny

Vagina Monologues at Theatre Widener

Awright, so it’s a little departure from reviewing galleries and museums, but one of the great benefits of living in any area with universities and colleges is the terrific and affordable opportunities to enjoy the theatre and the visual arts at most of them.

Theatre Widener at Chester, Pennsylvania’s Widener University is currently producing The Vagina Monologues the well-traveled Obie Award winning play by Eve Ensler that has been raising eyebrows and making people laugh and cry for over a decade.

The Vagina Monologues has been described as a “hilarious and poignant tour of the last frontier, the ‘Ultimate Forbidden Zone.’” At is core, to many people it is often just a very diverse and entertaining celebration of female sexuality. Eve Ensler now classic play delivers real women’s stories of the most intimate nature, sometimes funny, often revealing a surprising vulnerability, and nearly always some sort of sexual self discovery.

The Widener production is directed by Bohdan Senkow, the Director of Theatre Widener, and this production features an outstanding cast that includes Heather Astorga and Lauren Greenberg, two undergraduate seniors, Lisa Eckley-Cocchiarale, a staff member who directs the Widener Fresh Baked Theatre Company, and Roni Cibischino, Shanna Tedeschi, and Jennifer Woo, three graduate students from Widener University’s Human Sexuality program.

All six performed superbly at opening night, and Senkow made some great choices in the assignment of individual monologues to specific actors, and the chemistry between them was palpable and added a very positive effect to the overall production. This is not your typical play, there’s no plot or music and a very austere set, so success is based on the players’ ability to grab your attention with their stories and interaction with each other.

Cibischino and Greenberg were terrific and nearly flawless in their delivery and interpretations of their specific monologues and Lisa Eckley Cocchiarale had the audience cracking up from the beginning. Jen Woo easily had the hardest and most difficult monologues, especially the one dealing with the “C word,” which she delivered in a funny and valiant performance.

Shanna Tedeschi was also surperb and often very funny, especially when she donned a hat and scarf and related an old lady’s experiences with her “down there.”

Also superb was Heather Astorga, who delivered two of the most moving monologues of the evening, one dealing with wartime rape and another with a young woman’s discovery of her sexuality. For some constructive criticism, the very pretty Ms. Astorga should refrain from biting her cheeks during her colleages’ monologues. I suspect that she’s not aware that she’s doing it (neither is this writer when he does it), but it is very distracting once you see her doing it in the background of someone else’s monologue.

Profits from this very well done production will be contributed to support organizations that combat abuse against women.

The Vagina Monologues opened on Thursday, February 12 and will be presented on Friday and Saturday, February 13, 14 at 7:30pm, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, February 19, 20, 21 at 7:30 and Sunday February 22 at 2:00pm. Widener Students and Staff are invited free of charge, Staff Guests are just $8. Adults are $15 and Non-Widener Students are just $8. To make reservations please call Theatre Widener at 610-499-4364.

Theatre Widener is at 15th and Potter Streets at Widener University in Chester, PA.

Image Courtesy of Widener University.

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Lenny

White House art suggestions to the Obamas

Isn’t it interesting that life itself has an interesting way of forcing us to sometimes either reversing what we once thought were final positions, and other times life offers us a chance of defending both sides of a position?

Be careful what you opine today, as it may be different tomorrow!

I have been generally against the segregation of artists by race (Black, Caucasian, Asian or Native American) or by ethnicity (Hispanic, Semitic, etc.), and yet sometimes a void or need is so egregious that the solution is very clear and may cross lines that we may have thought as cast in concrete.

When we all discovered a couple of years ago that 66% of all the artwork by black American artists currently in the White House art collection had been acquired by the Bushes, depending on what side of the political aisle you stand, that fact either raised an eyebrow from some right wing nuts or some sort of conspiracy theory from vast left wing nutttery.

But when we also discovered the fact that only three works (out of an estimated 375 pieces) were by black Americans, both sides of the aisle should find that surprising… and maybe in need of attention by the Obamas.

A little recap and an update: In 2007 I reacted in my usual self-righteous, irate manner to having American artist and my former professor Jacob Lawrence described as a great African-American artist, rather than just a great artist. And then the Washington City Paper in the process of policing that whole issue, came up with an interesting fact.
Jacob Lawrence
Jacob Lawrence, pen and ink, circa 1980 by F. Lennox Campello
In an Private Collection

According to the Washington City Paper, Betty Monkman, the curator of the White House, revealed that, “while Lawrence’s painting isn’t the sole piece by a black artist in the executive mansion, it’s close to it — there are only two others.”

That’s now three out of “an estimated 375 total in the White House’s art collection.”

Geez Louise, I mean Betty.

That implies that Simmie Knox’s portrait of President Clinton is not considered part of the White House’s art collection, which doesn’t make sense. Knox is a DC area artist by the way, and a brilliant painter.

So let’s take off the first century and a half of the White House’s art acquisition process. During that time we can safely assume that they probably just focused on American artists from one of the four races, and somewhat let me reverse my stand on segregating artists by race, rather than just artistic merit, and let me take the uncomfortable side of trying to again ask the question, “Why aren’t there more works by black artists in the White House art collection?”

Even if one ignores skin color, and just looks at the art and artistic achievement, there are plenty of great American artists, who happen to be black, whom I think would make a great update to the White House collection.

Some art greats, by artistic default, I would think, would have to be Black, or Asian, or Native American, not just Caucasian artists of all ethnicities - after all, all four races of mankind create art and all four and their many mixtures, live in America.

Back in the 1980’s, Jacob Lawrence was awarded the National Medal of Arts from President George Bush The First. Why did it take 27 years for one of his paintings to become part of the White House’s permanent collection?

The City Paper research identified the other two paintings: “Henry Ossawa Tanner’s Sand Dunes at Sunset, Atlantic City (1885), which hangs in the Green Room, its home since 1996, and an 1892 painting by one “Bannister” (possibly Ed Bannister) acquired in 2006 and which was then undergoing conservation.

So two of the three have been acquired by the Bushes, and before 1996 there wasn’t a single work of art by any black artist in the President’s home, in spite of the fact that artists such as Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden, Sam Gilliam, Martin Puryear, Alma Thomas, and others are all just great American artists, period, and have even broken the National Gallery of Art code, and should all probably have been acquired by the White House years, and years, and years ago.

Makes my head hurt.

And let’s agree, as Jonathan Melber notes in the HuffPost, that the White House’s collection is not exactly, ah… contemporary.

But let’s say that a traditional acquisition focus on painting were to remain, and thus we would immediately unfortunately eliminate a lot of good contemporary choices. After all, the White House is not an art museum, and the case could be made that it sort of “feels” that it should be an art collection where all things somewhat say “America” in a variety of traditional visual ways, and I submit that for that goal, painting is still first among equals. That still leaves Romare Bearden, Sam Gilliam, Alma Thomas and others I am sure.

So if the Obamas were to continue what President Bush started, and expand the White House’s collection to be more representative of American artists and the American people, I would suggest that (in addition to perhaps more Lawrence), Romare Bearden, Sam Gilliam, Martin Puryear, and Alma Thomas would be a good start.

And, if as Malber suggests, the Obamas should expand the White House collection to more than just paintings, then in addition to some Lawrence collages, I would suggest work by other blue chip artists such as Kara Walker, Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons (who is not only a brilliantly accomplished artist, but also happens to be both Hispanic and Black) and Lorna Simpson.

But I don’t know if the Obamas personally collect art, and even though I am one myself, I don’t really buy the idea of a staff White House art adviser.

If the Obamas are like most people, they probably don’t “really” collect art with a focus or intensity to say, the Podestas in DC or the Rubells in Miami (either one of whom, by the way, would make excellent unpaid volunteer art advisers to the White House, if having an adviser was the choice made to change the visual arts acquisition status quo).

So… since the odds are that they would be beginning collectors, then I would suggest the same thing that I do to all beginning collectors: start looking first at emerging artists, which generally can be acquired for much less money than a well-established artist from the upper crust of the rarified artmosphere. Do this until you establish your tastes, desires and somewhat of a focus, and then, if your financial status allows it, begin expanding into the big museum-level names.

And if the Obamas listen to Malber’s excellent point of looking locally (as Clinton did in selecting Simmie Knox to do his Presidential portrait), then I would add one of the terrific works by Rikk Freeman to the White House.

A huge Freeman painting would do wonders for the White House collection and also do wonders for Freeman. Not only would it add a presence and feel to the collection that is missing right now and which is an integral part of American history, but it would also set a new, fresh change of venue of how artwork has been acquired in the past, and the kind of artists that get acquired.

See Freeman’s works here.

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Lenny

Some thoughts on Steven Soderbergh’s “Che”

Che

A while back I got some preview tickets to the opening of the new Steven Soderbergh two-part epic about the life of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the Argentinean blue blood guerrilla leader, starring Puerto Rican actor Benicio Del Toro in the leading role, which has already earned him Best Actor, 2008 at the Cannes Film Festival.

Because I was away on vacation, I couldn’t go, but I do plan to see this film, as I have been an avid Guevara follower nearly all my life.


“Che Guevara” by F. Lennox Campello. Charcoal c. 2003. 6 x 15 inches
My father fought alongside Guevara during the Cuban revolution, and like most of those brave young men who fought against the Batista dictatorship both in the mountains of Oriente province and the streets of Havana and Santiago de Cuba, he never expected the Cuban Revolution to put in place a worse dictatorship than Batista’s bloody regime.

In fact, most people don’t know that the official Cuban Communist Party was part of the Batista government while the Revolution was underway and even Guevara, a Communist all along, had harsh words for the Cuban Communists during the struggle. In 1958 he wrote that there were “mutual fears” between the rebels and the Party, and “fundamentally, the Party of the Workers has not perceived with sufficient clarity the role of the guerrilla.”

After the revolution, Guevara further added that he “only knew of three Communists who had participated in combat.” Besides himself and Raul Castro, one wonders who the third Communist was (Raul Castro’s future wife, Vilma Espin was also a known Communist; however, she was one of the urban guerrillas working under Frank Pais, the anti-Batista leader in the streets of Cuba. Pais was strongly anti-Communist. Of interest, a persistent rumor blames Espin as the traitor responsible for Pais’ death at the hands of the Batista police).

Guevara was a very courageous and even reckless fighter (as opposed to Castro, who spent most of the war secluded in the relative safety of the Sierra Maestra mountains). But he was also the executioner of the Cuban Revolution, a fact that he never hid but which most Guevara admirers conveniently ignore.

It was Guevara who executed deserters and captured Batista soldiers and henchmen during the struggle, and it was Guevara who signed the tens of thousands of execution orders after the Revolution, when Cuba was bathed in blood by firing squads. See some of the documented Cubans executed by Guevara (including over a dozen shot by Che himself) here.

Because of that, Guevara is known to Cubans as “El Chacal de La Cabaña.”

“El Chacal de La Cabaña” translates to the “Jackal of La Cabaña,” although it is usually translated as the “Butcher of La Cabaña.” La Cabaña is an 18th century fortress complex located on the elevated eastern side of the harbor entrance to Havana, and the location for many of the thousands of firing squad executions which took place after January 1, 1959. Shot were former members of Batista’s police, informants, traitors, and counter-revolutionaries.

The best known story about this period relates to how a Cuban mother went to see Che to beg for her son’s life. The son was 17 years old, and was on the firing squad list, to be executed within a week. If Guevara pardoned her son, the mother begged, she would ensure that he never said or did anything against the Revolution.

Che’s response was to order the immediate execution of the boy, while the mother was still in his office. His logic: now that the boy was shot, his mother would no longer have to anguish over his fate.
Dead Che, source unknown
On the other hand, Che’s courage as a guerrilla leader and his dedication to his caused are well documented and never challenged. While Fidel Castro tightened his grip on the Cuban people and replaced the Batista dictatorship with the Castro dictatorship, Guevara put his life at risk fighting in guerrilla wars in Africa and Latin America, until he was caught in the highlands of the Bolivian mountains in 1967 and executed on the spot. Just as he would have done had the situation been reversed.

It is this side of Che’s complex character that Che’s admirers and apologists always focus upon, and I am looking forward to seeing if this film addresses both the spectacularly courageous side of this iconic figure, as well as his war crimes and dark side of a man with little compassion and remorse.

I am also curious as to how the film handles Guevara’s departure from Cuba. “Che”, claims Dariel Alarcon Ramirez, who joined the rebels in 1956 and then went with Guevara to Bolivia, “left Cuba after being accused of being a Trotskist and a Maoist…. and because of the problems he had with the Cuban government, specifically Fidel and Raul Castro.”

Once I see the film, I will tell you my thoughts on it.

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Lenny

Itsuki Ogihara steals the “Paper” show at Projects

A few days ago I dropped by Projects Gallery in Philadelphia’s Northern Liberties neighborhood in order to deliver some of my artwork, as they are taking my work to a couple of fairs in Miami this weekend.

Hanging at the gallery was their “Paper” show, in which I actually have a few pieces of my own work.

When you first walk into the gallery you see this:
Projects Gallery

The wallpaper like artwork all the way on that far wall, seemingly a sort of artist wallpaper at first sight, is one of the most amazing conceptual pieces with a powerful delivery mechanism and one of the most innovative and intelligent works of art that I have ever seen.
Itsuki Ogihara Population Series
Itsuki Ogihara. Population Series. 17”H x 17”W. Digital prints

Like all of you, I was initially fooled by the subject matter macro visual, and it wasn’t until I zoomed in and understood what I was seeing, that this young Japanese-born artist (and a student at UPenn I believe) struck me with the powerful punch of that ellusive artistic goal: something new.

Itsuki Ogihara is her name, and this is her latest project (see earlier projects here) and after I describe it for you, I think you will see why I came away so impressed.

Each one of those 17″ x 17″ digital prints represents an American city. Each “city” has a different design.
work by Itsuki Ogihara, image by Roberta Fallon
Ogihara has taken data from the US Census to determine that city’s racial and ethnic demographics, and using an artistic algorithm, she then designs each print to represent that city. The macro design in each city is made up of 100 tiny silhouetted figures in various poses and activities. As an example, in the Salt Lake City print, there are 83 white silhouettes, 2 black, and so on to describe that city’s racial and ethnic make-up.
from Itsuki Ogihara Population Series - image by Roberta Fallon
Pretty interesting so far. And then when you study each figure, you realize that they are each individuals. That’s right, each individual figure is a separate and distinct image on its own.

What she has done is actually taken hundreds of portraits of people; real people and real photographs, and shrunk them down to the tiny size seen in the prints, and then colored them to represent each race (white for Caucasians, black for African-American, red for Native Americans and yellow for Asians) and one ethnicity (brown for Latinos).

It is such a labor intensive endeavor that it leaves me tired just to think of it. And it is also one of the rare conceptual ideas where the art actually delivers on a par with the idea or wall text about the concept.

Itsuki Ogihara’s demographic wallpaper is an unexpected treat delivered in a superbly professional and unique delivery mechanism, which employs concepts of mass production generalization to delve deep into our shared consciousness about race and ethnicity and art.

I see great things in the future of this young artist.

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Lenny

What’s wrong with Showtime Dexter’s Cubans?

Depending on who “fits” the cultural/ethnic/racial/political label created in the 1970s, Hispanics or Latinos can come from ancestries from around 20 or so Spanish-speaking nations in the Americas. I think that Europe’s Portugal and Spain were also once in that group but are certainly no longer there, especially in the “Latino” label.

20 or so very diverse and distinct nations.

Disclaimers: I do realize that this coming issue of mine is perhaps a very jingoist issue, and I am also keenly aware that I’ve written about it before in a smilar context but in for a different scenario. And yet the more that we become aware how culturally blind Hollywood is, the more they underscore their own cultural ignorance with minute mistakes that keep adding up to colossal mountains.

Last year I complained when Jimmy Smits, a superb actor on his own, was chosen to play the lead part in the CBS drama “Cane”, a series about a wealthy Cuban-American family.

My historical issue was that although Jimmy Smits is a great actor, he was not what your typical Cuban sugar magnate would have looked liked in the racist Cuban society of the late 1950s and the Cuban-American refugee wave of the early 1960s. His casting for the part was intolerably historically inaccurate.

CBS picked Smits, a brilliant actor, I guess based on their perception of what a Cuban looks like (Smits is not of Cuban ancestry… his father, Cornelis Smits, was a Surinamese immigrant from Dutch Guiana, and his mother, Emilina, is Puerto Rican).

This is what the person that Smits’ “Canes” character was loosely based upon really looks like

But I suspect that because, like a lot of Cubans, he looks too “Anglo” and not enough of what Hollywood (and CBS) wanted all of us to think that Latinos should all look like, they hired a terrific Emmy-winning Surinamese actor who fits the sterotypical image of what Hollywood thinks Cubans should look like, to play the lead part.

Latinos are a culturally, racially and ethnically diverse group of people, and we’re not all made of one mold, as Hollywood wants you to think.

So that was then, and here’s what has me all spun up in a new tempest in my demitasse.

Currently my absolute favorite TV show is Showtime’s “Dexter.”

If you haven’t seen this show, then go and rent seasons one and two out on DVD and then get hooked.

In the series, Michael C. Hall is absolutely brilliant as a serial killer who works as a blood expert for the Miami Metro Police while hiding the fact that he is also a serial killer. Dexter goes after bad guys, but he is still a truly disturbing psychopath pretending to be normal while killing bad guys left and right in a very orchestrated manner.

Dexter is television crime drama at its best. It is a brilliantly conceptual idea brought to life by really good actors and the gorgeous setting of Miami.

And because this show is set in Miami, several of the regular characters in the series are portrayed as Cuban characters, such as Dexter’s boss, Lt. Maria LaGuerta, played superbly by Puerto Rican actress Lauren Velez and detective Angel Batista, also played superbly by Puerto Rican actor David Zayas.

Now enter season three, which introduced a new character, that of Asst. District Attorney Miguel Prado, another Cuban character played by, yep that’s right: Jimmy Smits!

Smits is a terrific actor, and since by now he seems to be making quite a decent living playing Cubans on TV, the least that Showtime can do is hire some Cubans to write their Spanish dialogues for the series so that at least he can sound Cuban.

I know that this is pedantic, but everytime that Smits or the other “Cuban” characters speak to each other in Spanish banter, it is grating to Cuban ears to hear “non Cuban” Spanish being spoken.

Imagine that you are watching a foreign movie, let’s say that it is a French movie… and all the dialogue is in French, and in the film there are two British actors who are playing American parts, and every few minutes they speak to each other in English, and instead of American English coming out of their mouths, what comes out is cockney English.

That’s what (in my pedantic world of Virgos) I have to suffer everytime that LaGuerta, Batista and/or Miguel Prado talk in Spanish.

The straw that broke the camel’s back a few episodes ago was when Miguel Prado (Smits) jokingly called Dexter a “filipolla” (or “gilipolla”).

That’s when I realized that the writer that Showtime has hired to write the Spanish for the series, not only has no idea about what Cuban Spanish sounds like, but also zero idea of what Latin American Spanish sounds like, as opposed to Castilian Spanish.

Having lived in Spain for a few years in my 20s, I know what that word means, which is essentially a curse word used by Spaniards; let me repeat that: Spaniards, to mean asshole or jerk, etc.

I am almost 99% sure that no Cuban in Miami or Cuba or anywhere else in the Great Cuban Diaspora, has ever called anyone a gilipolla, unless perhaps they live in Spain and have picked up the term there… from Spaniards.

But in Miami? Naaaaaaaaaaaah…

A Cuban would have said “Maricon” or perhaps “Cabron.” But fili/gilipolla? Nunca!

Now imagine those two Brit actors playing Yanks in my earlier French movie example, calling each other “gits” or “wankers.”

Welcome to my pedantic hell.

And now for Showtime: My list of actor candidates who are actually of Cuban ancestry and thus a shoe-in for the part and who actually speak Spanish with a Cuban accent:

Andy Garcia (duh!!!! perfect for the part!… but probably too classy and too expensive to do TV).

Nestor Carbonell. He was great in “Canes” and also in “Lost City,” although I think that he wears eye make up?

Mel Ferrer… ah!… I think he’s dead.

Desi Arnaz… fine, fine… he’s definately dead; but how about Desi Jr.?????

Jorge Perrugorria

Cesar Romero … fine! I know that The Joker is definately dead.

Julio Mechoso

Ruben Rabasa

Victor Rivers

George Alvarez

Showtime: call me.

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Lenny

FotoWeek DC

The week of November 15-22, 2008 is witnessing one of the most significant art events in the Greater DC region take place, as it markes the launch of FotoWeek DC, the first annual gathering of a diverse and wide-ranging photographic community of artists, dealers, collectors, and venues in the nation’s capital, including photographers, museums, universities and all those involved in the profession across the metro D.C. area, including Virginia and Maryland.

FotoWeek DC brings together a huge number of venues, photographers and imaging professionals from every discipline to join with the public in celebration of the medium. It is one of the key steps forward not only in the medium in the capital region, but for the arts in general, and I really hope that it happens every year.

This is an amazing endeavor and it make me tired just to think of how much work this all was, has been and will be. There are exhibitions by the dozens, lectures, workshops, competitions, etc.

It would be impossible to list all of the ones that I feel are the top ones, as in reality there isn’t a single bad event in the program, but I hope to give you a taste of the event so that in case that you missed it, you’ll ensure that it makes it to your calendar if/when it happens again.

One of the more spectacular events was when FotoWeek DC and area museums teamed to create NightGallery DC, an unprecedented, world premiere digital video slide show. Art aficionados are being treated to a dazzling display of large scale projections of photographs selected from the collections of some of Washington DC’s most honored institutions, including the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, Corcoran Gallery of Art and College of Art + Design, U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and the Newseum.

The multi-story photographic projections created the largest outdoor slide show to date and exhibited some of the world’s most famous photographic images — from landscapes, to portraits; from history to art to science. “This is an opportunity for museums to reach audiences in new ways,” said Merry Foresta, Director of the Smithsonian Photography Initiative, “and present photographic images using exciting, and innovative technologies.” Theo Adamstein, FotoWeek DC founder and board president, said, “This is a powerful and unique project where architecture, photography and light combine to create a new medium.”

A new medium indeed!

Over at the American University Museum at the Katzen Art Center, Moravian-born theatre photographer Josef Koudelka showcases photographs of the brutal 1968 Soviet invasion of the city of Prague, which crushed the political liberation of the nation then known as Czechoslovakia. Forty years after they were taken and smuggled out of the country, Koudelka’s searing images record a glimpse into a historic event, a brutal invasion, and his personal experience with conflict. In his works, the association of photography and history is rekindled.

Smithsonian American Art Museum contributes “Georgia O’Keefe and Ansel Adams: Natural Affinities.” The photographs by Ansel Adams offer the usual “sunlight deserts, Taos churches, and Western skies,” but the exhibition also examines the friendship of two artists who were “attracted to the distinct landscape of the American southwest and were committed to depicting its essence with modernist sensibilities.”

This exhibition is the first to pair these artists, and “celebrates their mutual appreciation of the natural world and revealed the visual connections between O’Keeffe’s paintings and Adams’ photographs.” The exhibition (which runs through January 2009) includes forty-two paintings from public and private collections and fifty-four photographs borrowed primarily from the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, Arizona, which holds the largest single collection of Adams’ work.

At the Gallery at Flashpoint, Elena Volkova, whose work I have been following for years, exhibites some of very ethereal work, which once explored the Baltic and now look with the same sensitive lenses to the air, as she photographs cloud formations from the windows of airplanes.

Many galleries approached the event by having group shows. Over at the Smith Farm Center for Healing and the Arts’ Healing Arts Gallery they present “Visions of Paradise,” a group exhibition by a group of National Geographic photographers ,which as usual showcase the spectacular vision which has characterized this magazine for over a century now.

At Kathleen Ewing, the venerable DC photography gallery exhibits photographs by 20 DC area photographers, while Alexandria’s Multiple Exposures has a juried show where the juror (Steve Uzell) selected work from the gallery’s newest members.

Georgetown’s Parish Gallery also has a group show titled “More than you know,” which includes the work of photographers linked together by their relationship in Washington, DC. Bethesda’s Fraser Gallery selected to go with an exhibition of photographs from their photographers’ books and showcases people like Maxwell MacKenzie, Joyce Tenneson, Danny Conant and others.

A great event… and we’ll be visiting a lot of those spaces this week; and I’m already looking forward to the next Fotoweek of the future.

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Lenny

Here We Are

As a result of the decades-long Cuban embargo, the work of contemporary Cuban artists has been noticed for many years by many important museums and curators around the world, but often remains a mystery to American collectors and art enthusiasts. And those who write about the commoditization of art, such as the Wall Street Journal, have been telling art collectors who buy art in the hope those prices will rise, to buy contemporary Cuban art.

This suggestion and idea is simple, and has been proven recently by the super hot rise of Chinese artists: when a closed society is opened up a little, its top artists see a substantial rise in exposure and thus in demand, and of course, in prices!

And it makes sense (if you buy art as an investment strategy rather than love of art).

Generally speaking, when an artist is in certain major collections around the world, such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Tate in London, and other such giants of the museum world, it attracts a certain level of collector interest, and it is almost always associated with a certain price range.

And there are many contemporary Cuban artists whose work has been in those and many other important museums around the world for a very long time, and whose work continues to attract curatorial, critical and savvy collector interest, but because of their lack of exposure to the American market in general (often created by their closed societies), their price range is not in par with their colleagues from other nations in the same level.

Several years ago, almost by accident, I became involved in the curatorial process of contemporary Cuban art, in an effort to help with fundraising efforts by the Havana Hebrew Community Center. Since then I have become an experienced curator in this genre and have acquired a wealth of good knowledge about the artists from that unfortunate and imprisoned island.

Aquí Estamos (Here We Are) is my latest curatorial project and brings to H&F Fine Arts and the Greater Washington, DC region recent work by several important Cuban artists working out of Havana as well as Cuban artists from the Cuban Diaspora.

How can this be done?

It’s a brutal, labor intensive touch and go process, as although art and books are the only two items exempt from the Cuban embargo, the heavy hand of the Communist dictatorship that runs everything on that unfortunate nation touches all aspects of life, including the creation and destination of art. Bypassing and escaping the government is not easy, but it can be accomplished if the artist is willing to risk it.

In the works that you’ll see at H&F Fine Arts we find narratives and imagery that represent many of these artists’ historical dissidence to the stark issues of contemporary Cuban life. The works are images that offer a historical and visual sentence in the history of an island nation behind bars with a powerful world presence in the arts and events of world history.

In Sandra Ramos’ works we see one of the most important contemporary Cuban artists in the world continue to visit themes dealing with racism in her homeland, the physical and intellectual drain caused by mass migration, and other austere realities of daily Cuban life. Ramos uses her body and her figure in many of her paintings and mixed media etchings to narrate the daily issues that confront her life in Havana. In her drawing “Larva,” Ramos anticipates a future Cuba where she may be allowed to spread her artistic wings to full capacity, without fear of how her visual imagery may be interpreted by her own government.

Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons, who escaped from Cuba in the early 1990s, also uses her image and body to deliver powerful biographical and observational elements of the realities of being a black Cuban woman in America. She has been called “one of Boston’s most prominent artists,” and as evidence it has been submitted that the Cuban-born artist has shown at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Minneapolis’s Walker Art Center, the Smithsonian, the Venice Biennale, and many other prestigious venues around the world.

And last year the Indianapolis Museum of Art hosted “Everything Is Separated by Water,” a mid-career retrospective of Campos-Pons’ paintings, sculptures, photos, and installations. And as an Afro-Cuban woman, Campos-Pons has used her cultural and racial background as the initial key theme of her own work, with long ties to her Cuban homeland, but also with a powerful influence of her evolving Americanosity.

Both Cirenaica Moreira and Marta Maria Perez Bravo also employ their bodies to become the canvas of their photographs, although in each case with a different goal. Moreira has been called “woman as vagina dentata” for the ferocity via which her images depict her themes of loss of freedom, feminism, and being a Cuban woman in a land of unabashed machismo.

Perez Bravo is considered by many to be the preeminent Cuban female photographer in the world, and her work addresses the fabulous rituals and images of Santeria, the unique Cuban mixture of Catholicism and African religions brought to the island by African slaves.

Kcho (Alexis Leyva Machado) is also considered by many to be among the leading Cuban artists in the world, and he first attracted international attention by winning the grand prize at South Korea’s Kwangju Biennial in 1995. This will be his initial debut in the Greater Washington, DC region.

Other artists in the show include work by Roberto Wong, whose powerful paintings develop intelligent ways to showcase ways in which freedom is restricted and Aimeé Garcia Marrero, considered by many to be among Cuba’s most talented new crop of painters. Her technical skills are married to intelligent interpretations of daily Cuban life and even the influences of the giant to the North.

The opening, free and open to the public is on November 8, 2008 from 6-8PM. H&F Fine Arts is located at 3311 Rhode Island Avenue, Mount Rainier, MD 20712, tel: 301.887.0080 and on the web at www.hffinearts.com. They are open Thursday and Friday - 11:00 AM-7:00 PM, Saturday - 10:00 AM - 5:00 PM and Sunday - 11:00 AM - 3:00 PM. The exhibition is open through November 30.

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Lenny

In Brooklyn: destroying our past

My old neighborhood church in Brooklyn, Our Lady of Loretto, which also had a convent and an elementary school, is apparently being slated for demolition, as the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn has decided that Our Lady of Loretto, regardless of its architectural beauty and historical place in Brooklyn, is no longer worthy of remaining open and will surrender the property to the City of New York which has plans to demolish the church.
You can help by signing a petition here to declare Loretto a historical landmark; please sign it here.

The church was built originally by Italian immigrants who lived in the neighborhood, not by the Catholic Church. Stanley Molinari was our next door neighbor and I believe that it was his father who donated the land so that the church could be built.

By the way check out these mugs and see if you can find me in the class of 1970.

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Lenny

First Fridays

Having lived in Spain, Italy, England, Lebanon and Scotland at some point or another in my adult life, I can testify that in many cities of the old world, businesses of a kind tend to cluster together. Thus if you are looking for spices, or perfumes or a tailor, you can be assured as you explore the souk in Bahrain that you’ll find a dozen different haberdashery businesses all next to each other once you discover which area is “tailor alley.”

In the new world, I suspect that if you own a shoe store, the last thing that you want is a couple other shoe stores opening next to you. After all, that would just be competition.

Art galleries are different in that aspect. In fact clusters of art galleries is the best thing that can happen to the individual art gallery: the more art galleries in one area, the best for all of them.

Why? Because then it makes the are a destination for people interested in art. In other words, if an art collector is interested in seeing some new artwork, and he/she has a choice of visiting an area where he can see 2-3 galleries or an area where he can see a dozen of them, guess which one would be a logical better choice.

And most major cities tend to then align their gallery openings and extended hours to happen on a particular day of the week, most frequently the first Friday of the month.

In my experience, I can testify that Philadelphia’s First Friday openings pack the streets around Old City, and the average age of the gallery aficionado is about 20 years younger than the Washington, DC First Friday openings. Details on all the Philly area gallery openings here.

DC’s art galleries are not as packed around Dupont Circle as they once were, but there are still quite a few art galleries there and the area also has their First Friday gallery openings going on for the galleries around Dupont Circle. Also generally from 6-8PM. Details on DC openings here.

And there is First Fridays in Fell’s Point in Baltimore too, but their website was not updated when I checked (shame on Baltimore).

A bit further South, Richmond, Virginia, has a great gallery scene beginning to develop and they’ve got their own First Fridays going on; details here.

Go see some artwork!

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Lenny

Next time use Google


“they couldn’t find a Native artist who did formal portrait sittings like this.”

Earlier this year James V. Grimaldi reported in the Washington Post that W. Richard West Jr., the founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, spent $48,500 in museum funds to commission a portrait of himself. Asides from the sensationalistic issue being made about the cost of the portrait (funny how reporters always try to minimize the value of the visual arts) what caught my eyes was this statement: Silverman, of Polish descent, was chosen, said Smithsonian spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas, after “they couldn’t find a Native artist who did formal portrait sittings like this.”

“The portrait of West by New York artist Burton Silverman hangs in the patrons’ lounge on the fourth floor of the flagship museum, which is dedicated to the arts and culture of American Indians. Silverman said West picked him after he saw a portrait Silverman had done of former Smithsonian secretary Robert McCormick Adams. The Adams portrait, completed about a decade earlier, was smaller and cost about half as much.”

What!

What!

What!

Are you pulling my leg?

I’m not even remotely an expert on Native American artists, but off the top of my head I can think of a couple of Washington, DC area and former DC area Native American artists who are (among other things) excellent portrait artists. One of them, Michael Clark has made a worlwide reputation for his obsessive portraiture of George Washington, and he has also done dozens and dozens of portraits of JFK, Jefferson, Jackie O and many, many portraits. He’s in the collection of a couple of DC area museums I believe.

His brother Mark (who I think used to work for the Smithsonian for God’s sakes) is also a superb artist, a brilliant trompe l’oeil painter and has done many hyper-realistic portraits as well!

They’re both of Native American descent.

But we all know by now that most DC area museum curators ignore their own backyard. But couldn’t one just pick up a phone and call some art galleries in Santa Fe or Sedona?

Or use the web? So just for fun let’s see if we can Google some Native American portrait painters:

Mike Larsen.

Johnny Lee.

Mary Anne Caibaiosai.

Karen Clarkson

Reno Moreno.

OK… some are better than others, but if in less that five minutes I can come up with half a dozen Native American artists who appear to be portrait artists, including one - Mike Larsen - a Chickasaw portrait artist who was named the 2006 Oklahoman of the Year!

Note to Kevin Gover, who took over as the Indian Museum’s director earlier this year: when it’s time for your portrait and you’re looking for a Native American portrait painter: call me!

Or learn to use Google.

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