Last week I wrote about my week in Cuba, with details on our itinerary, lodging, transportation and information briefings. If you missed My week in Cuba: Land of Hope and Dreams, you can catch it here. Cuba has a lively art and music scene although it’s not clear whether the artists and musicians can earn a living with their talents. (But then that’s a problem here too, isn’t it?)
We had a chance to visit artists’ studios, galleries, shops and street stalls to chat, view and shop for art and inexpensive artisan wares. We heard a lot of music, most of it played during our meals at paladars. Almost every paladar had a small group—trio or quartet—playing for diners. We enjoyed the music of a trio at lunch at Paladar Le Moneda Cubana in Old Havana one day and then found them playing for our breakfast the next morning at the hotel. Most of the music tends to be global pop, rather than the authentic Cuban music I would have liked to hear.
Raul Castro has loosened the restrictions on private enterprise to some extent. There are hundreds of paladars now and many private homes operating as bed and breakfasts. The main governmental control, according to locals, is inspection to be sure the full operation is being taxed. Artists are able to show and sell their work, but their income is heavily taxed, like other entrepreneurs. (In many of these places, we were not able to take photos.)
The art of Arian and Andrey
One evening a few of us visited two artists’ studios to meet the artists and see their work. Our guide was Jose Camilo Lopez, a cultural guide and friend of our tour manager. Along with his driver, Daniel, we zipped around Havana neighborhoods.
Irsula Studios is both gallery and workshop for artists. Arian Irsula, the owner, was able to use family money to lease and redo two floors of an old house. The space, still being renovated, features 15-foot ceilings and pillars with Corinthian capitals. It has now become a slick modern gallery and workspace. We saw collages and paintings by Arian and Andrey Quintana as well as other artists. An example from each of them is in the slide show. Arian has created some collages that I really liked. They’re black and white abstracts with bits of glass and mirror. I really would have loved to buy one (they were not cheap) but was unsure about (1) any bureaucratic restrictions about taking art out of Cuba, and (2) that the collage would be broken in travel. So I settled for buying a small print at a museum shop. (See below.)
We also visited the home, gallery and studio of Reynerio Tamayo, an established artist who works with cubarte.cult.cu, the government arts agency. His work makes use of many media and much of it is humorous or satirical or based on pop culture references. Reynerio is a delightful and charming guy and we spent quite a bit of time viewing his gallery of work and visiting with him and his family.
I should note that these artists usually don’t have websites; they may have Facebook pages, but they have very limited internet access. (See Cuba Part 1.) Typically, they’ll show you additional examples of their work on their smartphone galleries.
Dinner and a jazz concert
Later the same evening we went to the luxurious home of a Havana art dealer in the neighborhood called Nuevo Vedado. Odette Pandoja, a friend of the Smithsonian group, had invited us for dinner and a jazz concert. The home was large and beautiful, as I described in Cuba Part 1. I was particularly taken by a series of large black-and-white abstract photographs, which would be very happy in my apartment.
After dinner, a jazz trio made up of musicians on keyboards, percussion and clarinet played a fine concert for us. I bought the band’s CD/DVD combination as a gift for my musician son (after I play both of them myself, as he knows I will).
Art on the street and in museums
While we were in Cienfuegos, we had free time to walk around the square visiting artists’ studios and the street stalls where other artisans sold their work. I bought some bracelets and other jewelry, but my favorite find was these wooden cars (ostensibly for my grandsons) that look like the 1950s cars that are driven all over Havana. (I think I’m going to give them as gifts, but I’m growing fonder of them every day.) In Trinidad, a quartet of elders played in the park as we walked by on the cobblestone streets. We also visited an artist’s home and gallery there after a too-long and unmemorable lunch at Paladar El Dorado.
On our last morning before flying from Havana to Miami, we visited the Museum of Fine Arts in old Havana, where we saw work organized by decade. There was not much inspiring work there and we saw much work from the 1960s and ‘70s that was derivative of modernists such as Warhol and Picasso. In fact, we saw a 1965 painting that was almost a replica of Picasso’s Guernica. Cuban artists of that period created a lot of political art and pop art multiples. At this museum, like most others, we toured with a docent whose Spanish was translated into English by our guide.
One other museum stop I should mention was in Miami, the day before our departure for Havana. My friend Christa and I made a quick trip to PAMM, the Perez Museum of Art Miami, where we saw two exhibits and shopped in the excellent museum store. The museum is new and modern but there was a lot of construction going on around it so I wasn’t able to get a good photo of the exterior.
The most interesting exhibit was Bloodlines by the Dominican artist Firelei Báez, who now lives in New York. Her paintings of African-American and Cuban women are rich in detail and color; they often depict hair designs, textiles and body ornaments.
Music and dance
While in Cienfuegos, we had some interesting musical entertainment. After walking around the square, we climbed several flights of stairs to hear a special concert by the Choir of Cienfuegos, a chorus of about 24 local men and women, who performed a concert of Cuban and international songs and show tunes. One of them, incongruously, was the American folk song, “Shenandoah.”
The day we were traveling from Cienfuegos back to Havana, we stopped at the Museum of Guanabacoa (in the colonial township of Guanabacoa) for a folkloric performance of music and dance by Grupo Olurún. This ended up with many of us joining in the dancing, but for some reason, there are no photos to record this.
More Cuban music
The music we probably think of as real Cuban music is that of the Buena Vista Social Club, a Havana members club that closed in the 1940s and was reconstituted in the 1990s by guitarist Ry Cooder and then filmed by director Wim Wenders. Here’s some footage from the Wenders 1999 documentary, Buena Vista Social Club.
Another song playing in my mind last week has a famous Havana reference. It’s “Lawyers, Guns and Money” by the late great rocker Warren Zevon. It’s from his 1979 album, Excitable Boy, which is better known for the title track and the iconic song Werewolves of London (one of the ringtones on my phone). Zevon sings:
I was gambling in Havana
I took a little risk
Send lawyers, guns and money
Dad, get me out of this.
It was a slightly overcast Friday morning and that didn’t make me unhappy. Down in Battery Park, I could walk along the water without worrying about sunburn. It’s an easy place to reach on the #1 train from midtown. Battery Park is a beautiful place with gardens and monuments and an excellent white tablecloth restaurant as well as snack and drink stands. It’s the place where you can board a boat to take you to Ellis Island or the Statue of Liberty, but I’ve done those things before.
I was interested in the new Sea Glass Carousel, which just opened in August. It’s housed in a circular building like a nautilus shell made of glass and steel that’s near the water and a short walk from the MTA station. The carousel is populated with many different types of fiberglass fish—a 14-foot-tall angelfish, a butterflyfish, yellow lionfish, triggerfish and a Siamese fishing fish, among others. 30 fish in all. For $5, you can sit in a fish of your choice and ride for about four minutes.
On another rainy day, I visited two interesting New York museums that I had missed on all my other trips. The Museum of the City of New York is housed in a grand building at 103rd and Fifth Avenue, built in 1932 as a museum. I was particularly interested in several exhibits there:
Everything Is Design: The Work of Paul Rand, one of American’s pioneer graphic designers. Rand developed dozens of familiar logos and the corporate identity systems that supported them–mainly back in the day when an identity system meant a massive binder of instructions for every conceivable corporate application, from stationery and publications to trucks, signage and uniforms. (Today those guidelines still exist, of course, but not on paper.)
Folk City: New York and the Folk Music Revival. An expansive exhibit of folk music in New York from pioneers such as Ledbetter and Guthrie to Dylan and famous venues such as Gerdes’ Folk City and Greenwich Village “basket clubs.”
Hip-Hop Revolution: Photographs by three photographers. I had seen Hamilton the night before, so of course I had to pay homage to the hip-hop artists who inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Activist New York. The drama of New York activist groups and issues over the years, from abolition (1830-65) and suffrage (1900-20) to civil rights (1945-64), gay rights (1969-2012) and bicycle lane advocacy (1965-2011). And a fascinating corner about the power of the pen: the Proletarian Literary Movement (1929-41).
The exhibits are all well curated and displayed. The three-story building also has a cafe. And there’s a beguiling door that displays this title: “This is New York’s most exciting stairwell.” And indeed the stair is lined with posters and billboards illustrating the city’s history and culture.
Over on Central Park West is the New York Historical Society, where I wanted to see the exhibit, Art as Activism. The exhibit asks the question: “How did political messages go viral before the internet?” and answers it in a mesmerizing way, showing 70 posters from the 1930s to the 1970s. They’re all from the Merrill C. Berman collection at the historical society. The posters are framed and installed like paintings. They tell stories you wouldn’t have learned in your US history classes unless you were using Howard Zinn’s remarkable People’s History of the United States.
All photos by Nancy Bishop except where noted.
The stunning sculpture exhibit currently on display at the Art Institute of Chicago is one of those quiet landmarks that art critics will talk about for years. The difference between this and some of the mass exhibits like Monet or Van Gogh is that you don’t have to sign up for a time slot, pay an extra fee or wade through masses of humanity to glimpse the work. Charles Ray is a major artist and one of our most important contemporary artists and this is your only opportunity to see this exhibit in the U.S. Charles Ray: Sculpture, 1997-2014 is on display in the Modern Wing through October 4.
The works are all fascinating in their attention to detail (car parts, toes and veins). The figurative ones have an eerie sentience, as I said in my review. They are all modeled on or copied from an actual person and it seems that Ray has captured the essence of the person in each work.
The 19 pieces in the main exhibit (two others are elsewhere in the museum and outside in the South Garden) are simply and elegantly displayed in three galleries. Each figure lives in its own ample space so you can walk around and muse about what it’s saying to you. And I guarantee, some of them will speak to you.
Two of the pieces have controversial backstories. See my review to learn why the Whitney Museum rejected “Huck and Jim” for its new location near the High Line.
(If you think you’ve read about this before, it may be that you saw my Gapers Block review posted on Facebook and Twitter. You can also read my review on berkshirefinearts.com. All photos by Nancy Bishop, except as noted.)
Farrago, potpourri, mishmash. Whatever you call a week of variety, that was my last week. A few tidbits and capsule reviews.
Cirque du Soleil: Kurios — Cabinet of Curiosities
The kid (he’s now 17) and I went to opening night at Cirque du Soleil with some friends. The Big Top (or le grand chapiteau) is set up on the United Center parking lot. Cirque du Soleil hasn’t been in Chicago for a few years and the show has been re-created or reimagined for a new audience, as my friend Kim reported when she interviewed the director, Michel Laprise, for Gapers Block. All the amazing acrobatics and gorgeous pageantry and choreography are still there but it’s done with a “steampunk” theme, suggesting late 19th century industrial machines with a whiff of fantasy. The costuming suits the theme and the period too.
We loved the Acro Net, where a giant net stretches across the stage and operates like a trampoline. The performers bounce, dance, jump and leap, sometimes all the way to the tent’s peak. The Rola Bola man balanced on a board, first atop a ball, then several balls and finally a hill of balls and spools–and still he balanced. The Invisible Circus was very clever, with all the lights and contraptions operating as if someone was using them, but not a soul was in sight–except for the circus announcer who described what was taking place. I could go on and on. It’s an amazing show. Whether or not you’ve seen Cirque du Soleil before, try to see this one. And take a kid or a kid at heart.
Hot Dog Festival at the Chicago History Museum
Next day we wandered over to the south end of Lincoln Park for the Chicago History Museum’s Hot Dog Festival. The hot dogs were great; I had a Chicago classic with all the trimmings layered in the proper order*. The kid had a dog plus fries and then went back for a Godzilla dog, which is the equivalent of two or three regular ones. We shared an ice cream because I ran out of dog dollars.
In addition to great food, there were bands and a speakers stage. We got there early so we could hear Bill Savage, the Northwestern pop culture professor, discourse on “Ketchup: The Condiment of Controversy.” He discussed the nature of hot dogs (“the ultimate democratic street food”) in other locales, concluded that Chicago is rightly considered the hot dog capital of the world, and described how hot dogs and their peculiar Chicago condimentry came to be. He took a poll of his audience. Seventy percent of us agreed that ketchup on a hot dog is an abomination, but ketchup is ok for kids under 10. Bill’s conclusion was Chicago is a great democratic city and Chicagoans are free to do as we please, and if that means ketchup on a hot dog, that’s ok. I respectfully disagree.
* The layers have to be: mustard, neon green relish, chopped onions, tomato wedges, hot sport peppers, dill pickle wedges and finally celery salt.
Two nights at the theater
My two most recent reviews were (1) brilliant satire and (2) a flashy musical. Guess which one I liked best?
The Boy From Oz is the new show by Pride Films & Plays at Stage 773. It’s the story of Australian musician and entertainer Peter Allen, who was married to Liza Minnelli for a while, was a great hit as a cabaret performer, but never was a huge success in the US. At least his music was never a huge success–and since there was nothing melodic or hummable about his music, that made sense. The production is very well done, with some good performances from both the actors and the dance ensemble. Great costumes and choreography. So my review is: It’s a pleasant evening with a lot of talent and energy wasted on boring raw material. See my review here. The play runs through August 30. See it if you like gratuitous singing and dancing.
Stupid Fucking Bird is Aaron Posner’s play that kinda/sorta deconstructs Chekhov’s The Seagull. Sideshow Theatre is staging it now at Victory Gardens/ Biograph and you can see it through August 30. You need to see it. The script is witty and the characters are sort of based on Chekhov’s except their angst is contemporary rather than 19th century. It’s a case where A loves B who loves C who loves D who flirts with E who is the lover of F. (I’m quoting my review.) Plus there’s a playwright who wants to invent a new kind of theater and when he succeeds in getting a play produced complains that he will now have to put up with being criticized by perfect strangers in addition to family members. Some nice musical interludes throughout the play with Mash (Masha in Chekhov) on the ukulele.
Movies with musical themes
Baby It’s You is a 1983 film directed by John Sayles. It’s a little indie film about Jill, a Jewish girl with dreams of college and a theater career (played by Rosanna Arquette), and her boyfriend, the Sheik (Vincent Spano), a well-dressed greaser who loves Jill and Sinatra. They are not going to walk off together into the sunset because Jill is not interested in marriage and babies and that’s the only relationship that Sheik can see for them. It’s a good film–I gave it 4 stars out of 5 on letterboxd.com. Two great things about the film are the music (plenty of Springsteen songs) and the trip that Jill and Sheik make to the Jersey shore. We see how Asbury Park looked 30 years ago when the Casino and the Palace were in much better shape; Madame Marie’s was there too and it still is. She died in 2008 but family members still tell fortunes in her booth on the boardwalk.
CBGB is a movie that I really wanted to like. It’s a 2013 docustory about the iconic punk rock club on the Bowery and its owner, Hilly Kristal (played, incongruously, by Alan Rickman). It was fun to see actors play the great bands that started there, like the Dead Boys, Television, Blondie, Talking Heads, Iggy Pop, the Ramones and Patti Smith– but the producers ruined the effect by playing polished studio recordings of those bands while the actors lip-synced. The music totally missed the raw, rough edge that it should have had. It’s not a very good movie–unless, of course, you loved the memory of CBGB.
One more thing ….
An exhibit of photos of rock star legends by Chicago photographer Paul Natkin was on display at the Ed Paschke Art Center in Jefferson Park. One Saturday afternoon, he sat surrounded by his photos and talked about his career, shooting some of the greatest musicians of our time, and how photography has changed with the digital revolution. His talk was fascinating and he was kind enough to talk to me later and answer a question about artists’ rights for one of my SCORE clients. Natkin’s work was shown in a more comprehensive exhibit a few years ago at the Chicago Cultural Center. You can check out his website.
The Freedom Principle: Experiments in Art and Music, 1965 to Now. That’s the title of the new exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art. It’s a euphonious blend of the visual and the aural. It celebrates 50 years of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, a group always dedicated to progressive sounds.
I’m glad to see the MCA continuing their exploration of the confluence of art and music, as they did with the exciting David Bowie Is exhibit last fall. This exhibit is a little more low-key but it displays paintings and photographs that represent the visualization of jazz and depictions of AACM from its beginnings to now.
In addition to two-dimensional art, there are exciting sculptural exhibits, such as the stage set showing the huge range of instruments, especially percussion, that the AACM played. Two of the original AACM members collaborated with a sound designer to create “Rio Negro II,” a roomful of bamboo and rain sticks, chimes and robotic instruments. It’s a sight and sound to behold and enjoy.
You’ll also see archival materials such as record jackets, posters and brochures. I especially liked the display, “Speak Louder,” Sound Suits created by Nick Cave (no, not the Australian rocker–this one is the artist and fashion designer). They’re beautiful and functional.
The title of the exhibit is drawn from a book by Chicago music writer John Litweiler. My reviews are here and here. The exhibit price is included with the cost of admission. Musical performances are scheduled for some dates during the exhibit, which runs until Nov. 22. It’s an intriguing and well-curated exhibit, so support your local art museum!
Because I’m a city girl at heart and habit, my visit to Bozeman, Montana, was probably more citified than yours might have been. Yes, there’s lot of great hiking over prairie and peak and we did some moderate walking, but most of our peripatetic adventures were city walking tours and museum treks. It was a great weekend in a university town that’s probably going to be like Boulder or Madison in another five years. The number of quirky coffee shops is a sign of things to come. (They have cold-brewed iced coffee in Bozeman!)
I lived in Colorado many years ago and have often visited Denver and Colorado Springs to visit friends and relatives and see Bruce Springsteen in concert. So I’m familiar with this part of the west. But the place I lived (Cortez, near the Four Corners) was a relatively young town whereas Bozeman has a lot of history.
We took many gorgeous mountain walks and drives, but I’ll report on the cultural highlights of a few days in southern Montana.
Bozeman’s Bon Ton district
This district of about 260 elite homes has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1897. (You can take a guided walking tour or do it yourself by installing a tour app on your smart phone.) The Bon Ton District totals about 27 blocks, with examples of Italianate, Queen Anne, Craftsman, Colonial Revival and Bungalow architecture including buildings with Eastlake features and some examples of vernacular architecture, such as pattern-book homes from the turn of the century. Most of the homes are beautifully preserved and represent elements of Bozeman’s history, including its failed effort to become the state capital. The tour takes about 90 minutes, unless your tour guide talks too much, in which case it’s two hours.
Bluegrass on Main Street
I first saw Special Consensus, a Chicago-based bluegrass band, in 1983 at my first Kentucky Fried chicken Bluegrass Music Festival in Louisville. The band members are a bit older but the music is still lively and fast as bluegrass string music should be. Banjoist and frontman Greg Cahill is the only original band member (and the only Chicagoan) still with the band. The concert was at the historic Ellen Theatre on Bozeman’s Main Street. It was a pretty traditional bluegrass concert with a nice combination of ballads, old-time bluegrass and some tracks from their new album, Scratch Gravel Road. The band’s two a cappella numbers were outstanding. You can listen to some song demos in the lower right here.
Robots and punch cards
Bozeman is the home of the fascinating American Computer & Robotics Museum, which apparently came about because its founder saved everything. The museum smashes together exhibits from a human brain and a Gutenberg printing press to typewriters, adding machines, original Alan Turing papers, punch cards (and their antecedent, the 1801 Jacquard punch cards for textile manufacturing) and the first neural computer. There’s also the latest in smartphone, robots and artificial intelligence devices. And a 1984 Macintosh like my very first.
The exhibits create a timeline of developments in computing and communications over the centuries. The museum, founded in 1990, was developed by and apparently based on the collections of Barbara and George Keremedjiev. They originally intended to locate the museum in Princeton, New Jersey, but changed their minds when they moved to Bozeman. The museum’s Wikipedia page is much more informative about the museum than its own website.
One day we visited Daphne Gillam, an artist who creates beautiful illustrative maps, at her home in the Shields River Valley. I was eager to see how she creates these maps and expected to see her sitting in front of a giant LCD screen. Instead, she is working on a piece of linen-finish paper taped to her desk top, painting with a well-used set of water colors and brushes, both medium and fine. You can see a gallery of her maps on her website, where she also describes the process she goes through when creating a map for a client, which is often a publisher.
Livingston, home of the Depot Center Museum
Livingston is a small town in the mountains near the Yellowstone River. It’s best known as the location of a museum created from a Northern Pacific Railroad depot built in 1902 as the original access to Yellowstone National Park. Passenger service ended in 1979 and in 1987 the city opened it as a museum to preserve Livingston’s railroad past.
Architects Reed and Stem, who were part of the design team for Grand Central Station in New York, designed the building. The exterior is notable for its terra cotta ornament and the interior for its beautiful wood and terrazzo. The exhibits illustrate how the railroad was built and maintained, how steam engines were serviced in the roundhouse, and how the railroad was run from the yard office, complete with tools and papers of the time. One exhibit demonstrates how the telegraph office worked and you can pretend to send your own dots and dashes.
An exhibit of paintings—Train in Art—was on display at the museum. The works were by two artists and I was particularly taken by the paintings by Sheila Hrasky (in the slideshow above).
After visiting the museum, we had dinner at a café in the historic Murray Hotel and then went to a play at the Blue Slipper Theatre in the historic district. The venue was pleasant and included an upstairs parlor where refreshments were served during intermission. The play, unfortunately, was forgettable.
Be bear aware
Brand identity is a modern concept, or so it’s said. Companies, profit and nonprofit, and political campaigns devote extravagant amounts of time, money and energy to position themselves consistently—verbally and visually—with their priority audiences.
But almost a century ago, a small but creative company on the south side of Chicago developed its own distinctive brand and visual identity for an array of products designed to help its customers find beauty and romance.
Valmor Products’ advertising and packaging is the subject of a funny, provocative and eye-opening exhibit at the Chicago Cultural Center. Love for Sale: The Graphic Art of Valmor Products runs until August 2 in the 4th floor north exhibit hall, just across from the not-to-be-missed exhibit of the paintings of Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist. See my Motley review for details. (All photos by Nancy Bishop.)
Valmor operated on the near south side (as the location image shows, near the intersection of Cermak Road and Indiana Avenue) from the 1920s through the 1980s. Their products were perfumes, hair pomades and straighteners, incense and a great variety of other products designed to help the individual (male or female) attract and please the opposite sex. Some of the products claimed to have mystical or magical powers.
The Cultural Center’s comprehensive exhibit is the first to show Valmor’s remarkable works of graphic design—product labels, packaging and advertising. Some of the labels were no bigger than a postage stamp, as you can see from the photo of the spilling bin of packages. (Other vintage bottles and containers are also on display.) Those tiny labels were enlarged to poster-size using modern imaging technology. The result is an exuberant display of social and cultural history as well as graphic design.
Charles Dawson, Valmor’s first designer, was a distinguished artist. His life and career are described here by the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA), the professional organization for design. Dawson’s unpublished autobiography is in the DuSable Museum of African American history.
The Chicago Cultural Center, as I’ve noted before, is a Chicago treasure that many people aren’t aware of. It was opened as the city’s central library in 1897, designed by the Boston architectural firm, Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge. They created a number of monumental civic structures in the Romanesque style of Henry Hobson Richardson (best known here as architect of the John Glessner House). In 1977, the building was re-created as a city cultural center. It offers many exhibits of artistic and architectural interest, concerts, films and other performing arts events–and admission is always free.
The Washington Street side has a grand Carrara marble staircase leading to Preston Bradley Hall with its beautifully restored 38-foot Tiffany glass dome. The hall was the library’s main circulation room, which is why the mosaics that line the walls display the names of authors and philosophers. (View the restoration story in the video above.) If you enter on the Randolph Street side, you’ll find a large area with tables and seating, where you can meet with a friend or client, read or do a little work. But be sure to walk up (or take the elevator) to the fourth floor, where you’ll find both the Motley and Valmor exhibits.