Kay Bourne Arts Report – Issue #60

August 29th, 2008  |  Published in Kay Bourne Arts Report


by Kay Bourne
530 Kay Bourne Arts Report   Issue #60The people in the paintings are dancing. You may feel the urge to do so too. The “MERENGUE!” exhibit at the Museum of the National Center of Afro American Artists is, as the saying goes, “salsa gordo!”

Among the people instrumental in bringing the exhibit to Boston is philanthropist and Red Sox player David Ortiz, born in Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic and also the very first capital city in the colonial Americas, as well as the site of the oldest university in the Western hemisphere (1558).

After Ortiz toured the show the morning it opened, that night Big Papi hit one of his famous homers. For the quality of its art, “Merengue! hits one out of the park, too, with much the same passion and power.

The joyful “MERENGUE!” art exhibit continues through NOVEMBER 23, Tuesdays through Sundays from 10am – 5pm at the Museum of the NCAA, 300 Walnut Avenue, in Roxbury.

For the Dominican Republic, a nation of 9.7 million people living on two thirds of a Caribbean island (Haiti occupies the remainder), merengue is the national dance and music. It was invented by its poorest people, credited to accordionist and singer Nico Lora, a Dominican of Spanish descent, and promoted by the dictator Trujillo, but as time went on elevated throughout the social strata until its beats have even been played by the country’s symphony orchestra. The irresistible rhythms and sounds of merengue has become this nation’s cultural gift to the world and a solace and intimate expression to its own people what-ever the ups and downs of their national political scene. And, in 2001, for instance, meringue was added to the Grammy awards as a musical category. So it’s little wonder that its premiere artists have celebrated merengue in paintings, sculpture, video installations, and photography, exemplified by the vibrant work in this show.

The expressive “Merengue! Visual Rhythms/Ritmos Visuales”, a major exhibit previously presented in Washington, D. C. and New York, features some 40 works by 28 artists. Presented cooperatively by the museum and a Boston Merengue Committee, the comprehensive look at art from this significant Caribbean land was organized by the Centro Cultural Eduardo Leon Jimenes, an organization in the Dominican Republic committed to the storage and exhibition of important art, and is toured by Art and Artists International.

The three musical instruments at the core of meringue are ubiquitous throughout the art, sometimes realistically, at other times abstracted, but always there at the heart of the canvas. The first of the trio is the guiro, a sheet of metal shaped into a cylinder that’s scraped on its side by a stiff brush and likely was invented by Africans imported to labor in the sugar cane fields. Then there is the tambora, a two sided drum held in the lap and played on one side by hand and the other by a stick, or sometimes a conga, both of African derivation, and, finally, the diatonic accordion of Eastern European derivation possibly coming from the Jewish population on the island.

The mural tradition with its many figures crowded into a painting and pushed forward so they seem to go nose to nose with the viewer, a style favored in Latino countries particularly, is evident in the large realistic works of Jaime Colson and others. In Colson’s powerful “Merengue,” painted in 1938, the musicians and dancers attain an almost mythic status. Jacinto Dominquez‘s abstracted “Perico ripiao,” painted a bit earlier in 1935, is stylistically almost a bridge into the mural form with its wonderful depiction of three musicians in the foreground while behind them hundreds of dancers are caught up in a beat that cannot be denied. A more recent depiction of the musicians and dancers, Plutarco Andujar‘s “Joyful Celebration” done in 1988, recalls the mural style yet veers from it by dropping the strong palette of colors typical in murals for a monochromatic grey as if to say the music and people are so strong they do not need the “flash” that bright colors provide.

Abstraction had a strong pull on a number of artists in the show who are decidedly their own person but have taken a good look at such various artists as the Spanish Picasso, the French Bracque, and even the American hip hop, narrative artist Basquiet (Raul Recio ‘s “The Death of Merengue” 1988).

The show excels in demonstrating how strong Dominican art is with samples from modernist masters such as Jaime Colson, Yayi Morel and Jose Vela Zanetti to the work of more contemporary artists including Raul Recio, Chiqui Mendoza, and Quisqueya Henriquez, to name a few.

All in all, this exhibit is an education on the fine arts of the Dominican Republic, which was part of the idea in putting the show together. Boston Merengue committee member Frieda Garcia, well known in city as a settlement house director and community activist, says that from the beginning “the focus has been to get as many school age children to the museum as possible.” Garcia remembers all too well when she was nine years old, her family recently immigrated from the Dominican Republic, that the history books she was reading in school had left her out. “I asked where do I belong? It is a moment I remember vividly. I realized that they weren’t talking about me or my parents in history lessons.” That memory surfaced when she learned about the opportunity to bring this exhibit to Boston. Already some 30 schools in Boston have been booked for the free tours of the exhibit and special talks around a table set up in a gallery alcove that has a time-line about the history of the Dominican Republic extending across the three walls. Schools can learn more by calling 617-442-8614 or going on line to www.merengueboston.com.

The Museum of the NCAA director E. Barry Gaither got the ball rolling for bringing the exhibit to Boston. The committee has many prestigious members including Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Junot Diaz, Hector Pina whose Merengue Restaurant on Blue Hill Avenue serves as an informal social gathering spot for people from the Dominican Republic who live in the Boston area, and Camilo Alvarez owner of the Samson Projects art gallery at 450 Harrison Avenue which specializes in cutting edge contemporary art.

National Center for Afro American Artists website

by Kay Bourne
527 Kay Bourne Arts Report   Issue #60Black Womanhood gets a closer look at a thoughtful exhibit opening at Wellesley College’s Davis Museum and Cultural Center on SEPTEMBER 17. “BLACK WOMANHOOD: IMAGES, ICONS, AND IDEOLOGIES OF THE AFRICAN BODY” explores the historical roots and current views of that charged icon in contemporary art – the black female body. She is viewed artistically from three perspectives: traditional African, Western colonial, and contemporary global art.

The exhibit was curated by Barbara Thompson curator of the African, Oceanic, and Native American Collections at the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College where the extensive show originated. The Davis Museum at Wellesley is its second venue, and following its visit through DECEMBER 14, the show will continue on to the San Diego Museum of Art. Thompson notes that “the exhibition provides the opportunity to raise awareness about the history of stereotypes of black womanhood and the continued impact they have, not just on artists today, but on all of us living in the global community.”

It’s not an exhibit you’d likely find in a municipal museum, says the assistant director of curatorial and education at the Davis, Elizabeth Wycoff. Interviewed by phone, Wyckoff commented that “we can have a show with a fairly scholarly force. The ideas in the show are challenging and more complex than an exhibit of a single artist.”

She continues on that theme saying that “at the Davis we want to challenge our audiences, which is primarily students. Hopefully the public also wants to join us in a show that inspires discourse and critical thinking.”

Wyckoff adds that the Davis has a strong commitment to introduce new scholarship and diversity of viewpoints which is a major intention of the “Black Womanhood” show. A symposium slated for Octpber 18 is one of the many enrichment activities planned to go along with the exhibit, as well as, performance art, a dance ensemble, a film series, and the opening celebration – all of which is open to the public. There is free parking. For more info you can go to www.davismuseum.wellesley.edu.

The Davis Museum website

by Kay Bourne
(painting of Thomas McKeller by John Singer Sargent)

528 Kay Bourne Arts Report   Issue #60Manet had Victorine Mecreat for a model. She posed for his famous reclining nude, an orchid in her hair, her slippers casually thrown beside the chaise. She gazes at you confrontationally. “Olympia” (1863) scandalized Parisiennes. They took her to be a courtesan.

Renoir‘s first model was the 16-year-old Lisa Trehot whom he painted some 16 times, perhaps most famously with an exotic bird perched on her arm in “Woman With A Parrot” (1866) and who became his mistress until she left him in 1872 to marry.

By contrast, at least from the perspective of gender, JOHN SINGER SARGENT, famous for his portraits of society figures from Britain and the U.S., had THOMAS E. McKELLER.

He was an African American, Bostonian male whom Sargent painted as a full frontal nude in a large scale oil, 49.5″ by 33.25″ for the painter’s private viewing. As well, Sargent drew many charcoal sketches of McKeller as a model for various figures from classical mythology to be included in a mural. The few other oil portraits Sargent did at the time include two of John D. Rockefeller, the founder of Standard Oil. Sargent tried to avoid doing these portraits of the wealthy industrialist as he wanted to move on in his career to landscapes and most importantly, to his mind, murals which he saw as the epitome of an artistic endeavor, but Mr. Rockefeller prevailed.

The McKeller inspired figure is kneeling, his hands are behind his back supporting himself on a cushion placed on a box. His head is slightly twisted to the side and upwards. His face has a pleasant expression. This is far from the sexually charged Robert Mapplethorp photographs in the “Z Collection,” however. Sargent takes the high road; his is an admiring portrayal only. Noted curator of American art Trevor Fairbrother has called the painting a “great portrayal of the black model.”

According to Mr. Fairbrother in his thought provoking book “John Singer Sargent The Sensualist,” McKeller was a “blue collar Bostonian who often modeled for Sargent after 1916, and the setting was the artist’s studio.” Fairbrother goes on to quote from Thomas Fox‘s memorial to Sargent that “On a hotel elevator he noticed that the operator, a young colored man, was possessed of a physique which he conceived would be of artistic value. Most of those who saw . . . the Museum (interior murals at the MFA, Boston) in process learned that his young man served as the model for practically all the male figures, and indeed for some of the others (the female figures).” The hotel was the then newly opened Copley Plaza which, coincidently, had been the first site of the MFA, Boston.

The painting, which Sargent kept in his studio and never showed publically in his lifetime, now belongs to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, purchased in 1986. The arresting portrayal of an African American male, “Thomas E. McKeller Nude Study” (1917-1920), is prominently displayed in the Susan Morse Hilles Gallery (American Impressionism). “It’s our most outstanding American nude,” comments Elliot Bostwick Davis, the John Moors Cabot chair of the MFA’s art of the America’s collection.

Sargent’s first success as a portraitist was in 1877 with a study of his teacher in Florence; this award winning painting was followed in 1882 by “The Lady with the Rose,” (Charlotte Louise Burchardt, an acquaintance of the artist in Paris) which, although done early in his career, is regarded as one of Sargent’s finest works. The nude study of McKeller, which was part of Sargent’s estate, was initially seen by the public when a photograph of it was published in a biography of the artist in 1955.

The portrait of McKeller was included in “Figuring the Body,” a contemporary art project of 1989 organized by Kathy Halbreich and Trevor Fairbrother at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. A year later it was part of an exhibition curated by Guy McElroy at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., “Facing History: The Black Image in American Art, 1710-1940.” The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston included the painting in its 1999 showing of the Tate Gallery’s 1998 Sargent retrospective, although the accompanying catalog did not publish the picture.

Official Website of The Musuem of Fine Arts

by Josiah Crowley © 2008
531 Kay Bourne Arts Report   Issue #60HAMLET 2 is one of the year’s comedy high points. The story of an untalented, deluded high school drama teacher (British comic icon STEVE COOGAN) who decides to write and direct a sequel to Shakespeare’s masterpiece despite the fact that, as his girlfriend (the wonderfully sarcastic CATHERINE KEENER) tells him: “Everyone was dead at the end of that play”!

Coogan (also prominently featured in the just- released TROPIC THUNDER) is hysterical (at times, literally) as the frantic, self-deluded teacher who holds faded actress Elisabeth Shue (Oscar-nominated for LEAVING LAS VEGAS) as the epitome of “acting talent”. In an outrageous – and outrageously funny – performance is none other than ELISABETH SHUE: here, portraying herself as someone who got fed up with Hollywood and is now a nurse in the small town setting of the film. Shue is more than just a good sport – she’s also the funniest she’s ever been in a film as she spoofs herself (it might be noted that, a few years after receiving her Oscar nomination, Shue returned to finish her undergrad degree at Harvard – in part because of the lack of interesting film offers)

In the style of Waiting For Guffman, HAMLET 2 is a hilarious, comic voyage as it follows a series of eccentric (to say the least!) characters who, against a drop of common sense, forge ahead with this endeavor of a musical(!) sequel to HAMLET. The high school students – inner city kids without any theatrical experience – get hooked to the thrill of live performance. Despite the fact that they’re as untalented as their drama teacher, these kids sure do have energy! (and drug habits, resistance to authority and immaturity.)

Coogan is indeed a hoot, as the teacher without a clue to his – or anyone else’s – limitations. Some of the young cast is equally impressive, especially Skylar Astin (in his film debut) as the closeted acting student; Melonie Diaz as the well-meaning klutz; and Joseph Julian Soria as a gang thug. These young actors, mixed in with veterans Keener and David Arquette, make for a most impressive comedy lineup. And one of the funniest films of the year!

Hamlet 2 website

by Josiah Crowley © 2008
(pictured l to r: Misty Upham and Melissa Leo)

532 Kay Bourne Arts Report   Issue #60FROZEN RIVER has already won major awards at the Sundance, Nantucket, Seattle and Provincetown Film Festivals this year. This most impressive first film by Northeastern University Law School graduate director COURTNEY HUNT is off to a good start and deservedly so. Shot on a very low budget (in just 24 days), this film manages to be both an intelligent film that challenges its audience as well as a thinking man’s thriller. Hunt studied civil rights and constitutional law at Northeastern.

The story of a poor woman living in upstate New York who falls into a life of crime in order to support her children, FROZEN RIVER features a bravura performance by screen veteran MELISSA LEO (best remembered as Det. Kay Howard on HOMICIDE: LIFE ON THE STREETS and as Benicio del Torro’s long- suffering wife in 21 GRAMS). She deserves to be remembered at next spring’s Oscar ceremonies. Leo’s performance – as a working class tigress who will do anything in her willpower to protect and provide for her two sons, including risking prison – is the best film performance, male or female, captured on film this year. Leo, certainly the best actress of her generation, gets a rare lead and, finally, a role worthy of her talent.

As Ray Eddy, working part-time in a five and dime store, in a poor section of upstate New York, Leo doesn’t try to make her character likeable, as a Hollywood star would. Instead, etched on a face that reflects the hard life she’s lead at the bottom financial rung of society, Ray is unapologetic in her determination – or personal set of morals – as she seeks to help her own. Set a few days before Christmas, the film opens as Ray’s husband, a gambling addict, has lost her hard-won savings and taken off, abandoning his wife and their two young sons to a Christmas without presents and a very shaky future.

Based on a true story, the film follows Ray as she becomes involved in transporting illegal Canadian immigrants across the border, into upstate New York (she drives them on a section of the border not controlled by authorities: she drives them across the frozen icy river of the film’s title). Somehow, through a wonderful , tense, intelligent script (penned by director Hunt), the film is a great character study of not only Ray, but also of the Native American woman, Lila (the impressive young actress, MISTY UPHAM, herself of Native American background) who is her partner in crime.

FROZEN RIVER asks its audience to recheck one’s ideas on what is right vs. what is legal and it is a luminous portrait of what desperation leads to when a mother’s love is at stake. For purely cinematic reasons, the film is worth seeing to witness how good a film can look on a shoestring budget. For those simply looking for a thriller, the film also works on that level. A must see for this, and every, season.

Official Website of Frozen River the Movie

by Kay Bourne
533 Kay Bourne Arts Report   Issue #60Six middle school-aged social misfits win your hearts as they vie for top honors in a spelling contest. On the face of it, a tussle, the show has a lot more to say than who by hook or crook is the best speller. By turns, hilarious then touching, the endearing musical, “THE 25th ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE,” has music and lyrics by WILLIM FINN and a book by RACHEL SHEINKIN. At heart, the family friendly show is a tribute to the resiliency of children who in the face of appalling parenting strive for more in life than winning a trophy.

North Shore Music Theater‘s excellent production directed with spunk and sensitivity by JAMES LAPINE holds your interest every minute. The cast is good all around but you’ll get a particular kick out of seeing MIGUEL CERVANTES, the Batboy of SpeakEasy’s “Bat Boy The Musical” (which had a cult following among youngsters and teens), here portraying a 7th grade brainiac whose raging hormones are compromising his facility at spelling. “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” continues through AUGUST 31, followed by Oscar Hammerstein, II and Jerome Kern‘s musical “Show Boat” opening September 23. (P.S. Aaron Neville is singing there November 29). For more info on North Shore Music Theater productions you can go online to www.nsmt.org or phone 978-232-7200. The theater is located at 62 Denham Road in Beverly, about 25 miles north of Boston, Exit 19 off of Route 128.

North Shore Music Theater website

by Mervan F. Osborne
(l to r front: Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr., Jack Black, Brandon T. Jackson and Jay Baruchel. center rear: Nick Nolte)

534 590x466 Kay Bourne Arts Report   Issue #60Remember that nude wrestling scene in the movie “BORAT”? Remember how wrong it felt ? How wrong, yet so brilliant that you laughed in spite of yourself? A sort of guilty laughter? Well, BEN STILLER’s TROPIC THUNDER inspires a similar feeling: it’s so wrong, yet so bloody hilarious, at the same time.

The film opens up with three fake trailers that introduce us to the three main characters: Tugg Speedman (Stiller), an action-hero version of his character in ZOOLANDER (it’s time to put this character to bed, by the way); Alpa Chino (BRANDON T. JACKSON), a potty- mouthed, superstar rapper-turned-actor; Jeff Portnoy (JACK BLACK), a potty- mouthed, flatulence specialist and five-time Oscar- winning method Australian actor Kirk Lazarus (ROBERT DOWNEY Jr.) who has endured a controversial skin darkening operation to imbue his character, Osiris, with more realism. The actors have been assembled to star in director Damien Cockburn’s TROPIC THUNDER, a blockbuster adaptation of a Vietnam veteran’s (NICK NOLTE ) tale of war heroism.

For Stiller’s character, this ambitious war-pic represents a shot at redemption as it comes on the heels of Simple Jack, his recent box- office failure, a critical disaster that saw him playing a mentally challenged farm boy. Director Coogan shoot has been a disaster, raising the ire of studio boss Les Grossman (TOM CRUISE) as production costs have spiraled out of control. To address his problem, Coogan decides to strip away the Hollywood pretense and complete the film guerilla style, to follow his stars with hidden cameras strategically placed all over the Vietnamese jungle.

Disaster quickly strikes and the actors find themselves unknowingly immersed in a real life struggle to survive when they unwittingly stumble upon a heroin production camp ruled by a twelve year old warlord.

An overzealous and impossibly naive Speedman manages to get himself captured by the heavily armed smuggler/militia men and he is tortured. Until, that is, the little warlord realizes that Speedman is the very same Simple Jack character featured in his clan’s favorite film.

Meanwhile, the rest of the actors work on a far-fetched plan of rescue and more hilarity ensues.

Tropic Thunder is, essentially, a send up of the whole action genre but falls short of achieving effective satire status. The focus on Stiller’s character feels excessive; he fails to evolve into anything other than a string of tired Ben Stiller sight gags. Jack Black’s Portnoy is a fun and generally amusing character in a loud and obnoxious way and Jackson does what he can to rescue his character from one-note stereotype status. Nick Nolte, who plays Four Leaf Tayback, the inspiration behind the film within the film hits every note perfectly- I only wish there were more of him.

What pushes Tropic Thunder over the also-ran status are the performances of Cruise and Downey. I’m no Cruise fan- I grew tired of his glory-boy-steely-eyed- wuss-stare shlock a decade ago but he won me over in the most self-deprecating role of his career. I mean, he’s basically donned a fat-suit and gone bald for this role and he’s truly disgusting. Additionally, he’s created one of the most memorable end-credit routines ever filmed.

Downey continues to show why he is the one true heir to DeNiro- an actor of such range and commitment that he’s equally effective in intense dramas and farcical send-ups. It’s a difficult performance to describe; it’s more than the politically unapproachable white man in blackface. Rather, there’s simply a visceral commitment to the walk, the dialect, and to the vulnerability of his character that absolutely stands apart. He brings fun, danger and pathos to his role and, frankly, in a film with such a slapstick nature, it’s simply an amazing accomplishment.

The annoying boy-drug lord, the preposterous violence, the dubiously crafted and beyond-far-fetched plot and script conspired to sink this film but this is not the case. There is just enough weird buddy chemistry and an ample amount of Downey to establish Tropic Thunder as one of the more intriguing American comedies in years.

Tropic Thunder website

Young, Medfield artist TARYN WELLS examines the “dualities and dark truths” of race in America and the mulitracial individual’s challenge to find a place in the complicated world of racial identity. Her large scale drawings are in an exhibit through AUGUST 29 at the Brookline Arts Center, 86 Monmouth St. in Brookline. Wells is the winner of the Best in Show award at the Fraser Gallery International Art Competition and the Board of Director’s Choice Award at the Cambridge Art Association. She has exhibited at A.I.R. Gallery and Artists Space Gallery in New York. For further info you can phone 617-566-5715 or go on-line to www.brooklineartscenter.com. The “THERE ARE NO OTHERS AROUND ME” exhibit is open free to the public Mon. – Fri. from 9 am to 4:30pm.

The deadline to register for DORCHESTER OPEN STUDIOS has been extended to Monday, SEPTEMBER 1. Visit www.thedac.org to register. Late registrations will also be accepted. The 8th ANNUAL DORCHSTER OPEN STUDIOS will take place on OCTOBER 25 & 26 at various locations throughout Dorchester. as an opportunity for artists who live, work and/or play in Dorchester to showcase and sell their work either at their own artist studios or at multi-artist shared space at First Parish Church, the Great Hall in Codman Square or The Boston Home. It’s also an opportunity to make contact & network with other Dorchester artists, and to bring in art lovers from outside our neighborhoods to show off Dorchester at its best.

Musicians alert!!! A talent search is underway for new jazz, blues, Latin, reggae, or R&B artists who want to showcase their talent alongside the greats who play at the 29th ANNUAL STEPPIN OUT’. Entrants must be jazz, R&B, Latin, reggae, or blue in style. They must be 21 or older. And eligibility is limited to bands or individual performers that have never previously performed at Steppin’ Out. For more info click here here.

The Franklin Park Tennis Association offers free tennis lessons every Saturday until SEPTEMBER 13 at the Shattuck Grove courts on the Shattuck Hospital side of Franklin Park. Children’s lessons are noon – 1:30pm and adults’ 1:30 – 3pm and Tuesdays and Thursdays 9 – 11am. For info, call 617-374-0655 or click here.

Saturday, SEPTEMBER 20 is ROXBURY DAY, free and open to the public, at Eliot Square in Roxbury at the Dillaway Thomas House of the Roxbury Heritage State Park, featuring the Makanda Jazz Project, Poetry Cafe, Jazz 208 and more. For vendor information call The Roxbury Action Program at 617-442-4400.

The Ladies of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc. Boston Alumnae Chapter with the men of Eta Phi Chapter of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Inc. present THE BOSTON BOATRIDE, MIDNIGHT CRUISE on Saturday, SEPTEMBER 27 on the luxurious SPIRIT OF BOSTON CRUISE SHIP, 200 Seaport Boulevard near the World Trade Center with 4 levels of entertainment, Level 1, a live jazz band and VIP lounge, DJ Chubby Chubb spinning old school, hip hop, R&B, calypso and reggae on Levels 2 & 3, and the moonlight deck on Level 4. Boarding time, 11pm, sailing 11:30 – 2:30am, for more info visit www.thebostonboatride.com

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