Dilettante's Diary

March 11/15

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Favourite Works: 2004-2013
Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
Sabbath's Theater by PHILIP ROTH
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How Fiction Works
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CBC Radio -- "The New Two"
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The Jesus Sayings
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Head to Head
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Me In Manhattan
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About Me
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OTHER STUFF: Art Exhibitions, Concerts, etc.

The date that appears above is the date of the most recent reviews. As new reviews are added, the date will change accordingly. The new reviews will appear towards the top of the page and the older ones will move further down. When the page is closed, the items will be archived according to the final date on the page.

Reviewed here: Drawing 2015 (Art); The Sunday Edition and In Concert (Radio); Still Alice (Movie)

Drawing 2015 (Art), John B. Aird Gallery, Toronto; Feb 10 - March 6.

One of the main responses that this show elicited in me was sympathy for the jurors. Considering the vast range of works that must have been submitted, how in the world did the jurors decide which ones to include in a show that could only accommodate about forty works?

[Disclosure: I didn’t submit this year but I once had a drawing in this show and have since submitted a few works that were not accepted.]

The question of choice strikes me as a more thorny problem for jurors of a drawing show than, say, a painting show. In the case of painting, the work falls more or less into two categories: representational and abstract; you can pick the best of each group. When it comes to a show like this one, though, there are many more kinds of work that can be considered under the, admittedly, very wide umbrella of "drawing." Some of the work in this show was very close to painting, some of it was more like sculpture, some of it might even have been considered installation art and some of course, was in the vein of what might be looked on as traditional drawing. To select a fair representation of the various types of work submitted, then, the jurors must surely have had to leave out a lot of very good work.

Having acknowledged that predicament for the jurors, however, I have to say that it looks to me as though they erred too much, this time, in favour of works that could be looked on as conglomerations of lines, mostly black, that aren’t very meaningful or significant. Take "Nest 2" by Agnieszka Poltyn, one of the show’s prize winners. In graphite on a large square of paper, it consisted of a whirl of furious lines that did suggest something of a bird’s nest. Granted, there was a certain luminous quality to the interplay of the lines, light and dark. But what was it about the work that made it worthy of a prize? Maybe I missed the class in art school when they discussed the merits of that kind of work. (Actually, it’s pretty certain that I did miss the class, given that I never attended art school.)

Sometimes you wonder if jurors are inclined to champion artists who have the guts to put something on the wall and call it art even though that designation would baffle most people. As in the case, perhaps, of "Mirror" by Leena Raudvee: a jumble of black lines that looked, at first, like nothing but some crazy scribbling. But maybe that title hinted at something? Could that bent line jutting out on one side be a knee? Could the black jumble, then, be thought of as the tangled hair of a female nude sitting on the floor, head tipped forward? I know it’s considered bad form to try to find representation in works that aren’t meant to have any, but this work forced you to look for something in it.

A more restrained celebration of the line was demonstrated in "You So Gently Move Me" by Luci Dilkus: a small work showing a series of very fine, very close vertical lines, something like a fringe hanging very still. On the other hand, there was motion in the wavy lines, in soft earth colours, in the two components of Natalie Olanick’s "111 Dyptich."

For me, the work of Cathy McNeil made a transition between the works that featured lines with no particular signification and those that tended towards more representational modes. Ms. McNeil’s "Under the Gardiner T.O." used a lot of hasty dashes and lines in black that looked almost like scribbling but they did clearly capture the vitality and vibrancy of a cityscape.

In the more traditional style of fine drawing, there was Toni Hamel’s "Flow," a work in graphite on paper. Portraying a group of loggers on a river, it could well have been an illustration in a book about early Canadiana. An even more delicate touch was shown in Sue Ericsson’s "Handkerchief Dress," a life-sized representation of a child’s dress, a mixed media work in meticulous detail. In bolder, almost cartoon-like strokes, there was Anne Crissell’s little work, "Gerbera-End Stage:" a poor flower, sadly collapsing on its side. I liked the work for its personality and for the touch of humour that it injected into a show that was serious and sombre for the most part.

When it came to life drawing and portraits, you could not get much better than Peter Krausz’s "IOANA." In Cont on mylar, about one-and-a-half times life-size, it showed a very elderly lady glaring hauntingly at the viewer, every wrinkle and furrow on her aged skin etched in attentive detail. Another picture of two elderly people that appealed a lot to me was Adam Kolodziej’s "Friends forever," in charcoal on paper. From across the room, it looked like abstract blotches but, as you approached the work, two people conversing intimately emerged from the shadows.

Another intimate moment was captured in Olexander Wlasenko’s "Movie Theatre." It showed two or three rows in a cinema, where the focus of attention was on a young man turning to say something to his companion. What struck me about the work was that, from a distance, it seemed to be executed in an almost photographically precise technique. Up close, however, you saw that it was done in broad, bold strokes. That sort of magic in a work always fascinates me. Of the life drawing samples in the show, the one that stood out for me was Anne Cavanagh’s "Crouch Start: Citius, Altius, Fortius." Showing a runner crouched in a starting position, the work, in charcoal on mylar, not only demonstrated mastery of the human form but it nearly exploded with the pent-up energy ready to burst from the runner.

One of the few works in the show to use much colour, Jeanette Luchese’s "Rhythms of my mind" (graphite, chalk, pastel and acrylic) offered much for the eye to explore with its pleasing arrangement of contrasting shapes and soft colours suggesting something like watery reflections. Two large works (about eight ft by 3 ft) by Anna Gaby-Trotz, "Listening to the Land" and "Listening to the Land 2" (charcoal on mylar), although more abstract than representational, invited the viewer to ponder what might be thought of as meditations on aspects of nature. One suggested, perhaps, a forest as seen from a plane, the other a cascade of water.

Intimations of the natural world also came through in "Sift 33" by Sarah Kernohan (graphite, water and vinegar on mylar). The fluid effect of large swirls of cloudy grey, with darker blotches here and there, suggested, in a very peaceful way, that you might be looking at an x-ray of a flower petal or a butterfly wing. There was something mysterious and alluring about Arnold McBay’s "Cimmerian Vessel:" against a completely black background, an opening which glowed a silvery blue and white (oil stick on paper). Lindy Fyfe’s "Tectonic" (recycled knit fabric with canvas), had broad stripes in blue, green and black, interspersed with fine white lines. The stripes travelled more or less vertically on one side of the work and more or less horizontally on the other side. Was there any representation intended? Maybe not. But I enjoyed thinking of the work as a schematic suggestion of roads and fields as seen from the air. I also liked Antoinetta Grassi’s "Tower" (acrylic on paper), a work that, although abstract in effect, used some elements from what might be a construction site: something like scaffolding, and a platform, a kind of hut with a door – all combined in a surrealistic way.

As for "500 Foot Folded Line" by Dyan Marie, another of the show’s prize winners, it was hard to know what to make of it. A large work on a stand, it consisted of something like a wheel or a flower made of sheets paper. About four feet in diameter, it was slightly flattened on the top. When you looked closely, you saw that the work was constructed by opening a large pad of paper and crumpling each page just enough to make it stick out separately from the adjoining pages. Close inspection also revealed that there was a smudged black line running through the pages. Acknowledging the dual nature of the work, the artist had described it as "Drawing Sculpture." Was this another case of an artist’s being ballsy enough to put the label "art" on something that was just plain goofy? Could it be called pleasing to the eye, or beautiful, in any way? Did it have an intriguing effect? Did the oddness of the work prompt a worthwhile kind of questioning in the viewer?

I’m still wondering.

The Sunday Edition and In Concert (CBC Radio)

Since many of us tend to grumble about changes to CBC Radio these days, it behooves us to speak up when the corporation offers something really good.

For years, I’ve been wondering about the Magna Carta. My searches for a good book on it have proven futile. The subject must have come up in some history lesson way back, but anything heard then or since has evaporated from my mind. The issuing of the Magna Carta stands in my imagination as one of those almost unbelievable moments in human history. How could it be that a bunch of people cornered a king, who thought, as did all monarchs, that he was all powerful, and told him: guess what, guy, you’re not all powerful after all; there are limits to your power and we’re going to see that you keep to them! What caused that revolutionary moment to come about? Why did the king submit? What does that moment mean for our present civil organization?

On Michael Enright’s "The Sunday Edition" last Sunday (CBC Radio One), I heard that this is the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta. To help get us in the mood for the celebrations, Mr. Enright interviewed, Carolyn Harris, a University of Toronto prof and an expert on the Magna Carta. In a succinct and precise way, Professor Harris answered all my questions on the subject and whetted my appetite for lots more information about it. (Which may come in a book of hers to be published this spring.)

Briefly, Prof Harris noted that there were precedents to the Charter. Competing claimants to the throne had previously issued charters, dealing with matters of rights and privileges, as a way of enlisting support for their claims to kingship. Such charters, however, were voluntary on the part of the would-be kings. The Magna Carta was the first one imposed on a king. And why did King John accept it? Because he needed the financial backing from the nobles for his battles to win back lands lost in Normandy, Brittany and elsewhere. Once the king had affixed his seal to the Charter, however, he tried to backtrack. He asked the pope to excuse him from the demands of the Charter in return for his, the king’s, accepting the pope’s appointments to the hierarchy in England.

The influence of the Charter waxed and waned in subsequent years. By the time of the Tudors, people were more interested in having a powerful monarch than in the rights of the people. The Charter was so irrelevant in Shakespeare’s time that his King John makes no mention of it.

Professor Harris passed on too many more fascinating details for relaying here. Excellent as this item on the program was, I have a complaint about the way it was introduced. We were treated to a little dramatization in which actors portraying the roles of King John and of the nobles argued their cases in a strident, theatrical way. Why did we need this? I am happy that some actors got this work from the CBC, but what did it add to our understanding or appreciation of the subject? Nothing, as far as I could see. It seemed like an insult to our intelligence – as though we could not be lured into listening to a "historical" subject without some razzmatazz.

Even worse, in that respect, was an element of the programming that Sunday afternoon on Radio Two.

Paolo Pietropaolo’s "In Concert" included, as it often does, a brief profile of an up-and-coming Canadian musician. In this case, the musician was a harpist named Kristan Toczko. Ms. Toczko played beautifully. She also spoke well for herself in the section of the item devoted to her thoughts and opinions. But the CBC thought it appropriate to "spice up" this spoken segment with background effects. When Ms. Toczko said how much she loved baking cookies, we had to endure an obnoxious intrusion from Sesame Street’s "Cookie Monster" who grumbled on and on for several seconds. When it came to Ms. Toczko’s expression of her fondness for skiing and hiking, what did we get? A stirring rendition of "Climb Every Mountain," building to its saccharine conclusion.

Why could not Ms. Toczko be allowed to express her ideas without such needless schmaltz? Does the CBC think it is gaining new listeners with this cornball? Is this super-sensory-stimulation supposed to appeal to a new generation of potential listeners who are conditioned to the cheap thrills of rock videos, U-Tube, Instagram and Twitter?

Please.....if there are potential new listeners to be lured to CBC Radio, give them credit for being intelligent enough to see such cloying tactics for what they are.

Still Alice (Movie) screenplay by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland; based on the book by Lisa Genova; directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland; starring Julianne Moore, Alec Baldwin, Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth, Shane McRae, Hunter Parrish, Stephen Kunken

If you’re the least bit attuned to what’s happening in the culture of the Western world, you can’t approach this movie without knowing what it’s about: a woman, aged fifty, is experiencing early-onset Alzheimers. I was wondering, then, if the movie would be problematic in the way that The Madness of King George was. We knew that movie was about the craziness that afflicted the British monarch (for undetermined causes) and about his subsequent recovery. While it was a fascinating movie in some ways – the royal falderol, for one thing – I was sitting there thinking: ok, so go mad....ok, so now get better. When the arc of a movie is more or less preordained, it sometimes robs your viewing experience of any sense of discovery.

Happily, this movie avoids that problem. I think it does so by making the circumstances, the settings, the relationships – everything surrounding the patient – so real and believable. A lot of the credibility has to do, of course, with Julianne Moore’s excellent performance as Alice, the afflicted woman. But there are other touches that help to reinforce the sense of ordinariness. Take the neurologist overseeing her case (Stephen Kunken). He’s a pleasant but somewhat nerdy-looking guy, not at all the kind of spiffy doctor we’re used to seeing in movies. And then there’s one of Alice’s daughters, Lydia (Kristen Stewart). She’s a blunt, plain-spoken young woman and she has some ongoing issues with her mother, particularly about her, the daughter’s, choice of career. The friction between them that underlies all their scenes helps to cut through the sentimental aspect of the mother’s situation. Alec Baldwin, as her supportive husband, contributes in his unique way to the sense that what’s happening is authentic, not soap opera. When we see him being sympathetic and kind to her, we know that it’s costing him something to do so. This could be partly because we often see Mr. Baldwin playing hard-assed characters, but it also helps that the script gives this husband some concerns that threaten to pull him away from the role of the devoted caregiver.

Good as this movie is, it’s not amazingly good in the way of a movie that takes you someplace where you’ve never been, that shows you something you never thought of. (Very few movies do that, which is why the ones that do stand out.) Still, this movie does have it’s great moments. One of them would be the scene where Alice delivers, with difficulty, a speech to an Alzheimers association, in which she talks about the importance of learning to be ok with letting go of her memories. A speech like that is one of the few places, though, where we get much of a sense of what it’s like to be in Alice’s mind as it deteriorates. I haven’t read the novel that the movie’s based on, but I’m guessing that it was able to give us a more immediate sense of Alice’s feelings, her desperation, her sense of disorientation. Obviously, there would be no way for a movie to convey all that – unless through voice-over, and that usually comes off as an ill-advised technique favoured by some of the less gifted moviemakers.

When it comes to conveying feelings, the one thing that a movie has over a book is music. Here, as with so many movies, I was resistant to the tinkling in the background (often two string instruments with piano, or a few wind instruments) to signal every change of mood, to tell me exactly how I was supposed to feel. But I gradually began to forget about the music and go with the flow. Perhaps that’s one sign of a good movie.

Another one: a sudden ending. A scene stops and the screen goes blank. You’re waiting for more. You’re thinking: surely they’ve got to tell us exactly how the story ends! But then you realize that enough has been said. No need to say any more. When an ending hits you like that, as this one does, it usually means that something very good has been happening as you sat there watching the screen

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com