A July Art Vacation

While some relax rafting or playing 18 holes of golf, I spent a portion of my summer on campus. When not writing essays for Town Square 49, or painting with acrylics, I attend low-residency PhD classes at The Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts. This program allows students to absorb classical philosophy while never getting out of their pajamas. IDSVA requires students to live in an Italian feudal castle to understand how bourgeois society evolved from master/slave lifestyles into today’s consumer culture. 

Over the past few years, the program has taken me to the Venice Biennale, the Louvre’s I.M. Pei Pyramid, and Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, now a tourist attraction where comic book characters will pose for souvenir snapshots. This gate represented Cold War politics as it divided a Westernized city with its technological progress and regress, drastically altering twentieth century lifestyles beyond Germanic borders.

As I near my upcoming PhD oral examination, a rite of passage like running through the academic gauntlet, my first hurdle was a pre-dissertation session given at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.  Outside my brick classroom of updated Georgian architecture, the thermometer read ninety-five. Inside, Professor Paul Armstrong coolly dialogued on what to expect when entering, solo, into the feared inner sanctum. I imagined Kant and Hegel, those buttoned-up Enlightenment philosophers, laughing over a beer, at the thought of me, an Alaskan grandmother-slash-artist, light years away from their German Idealism, having the audacity to question their opinions on the Cartesian-self.

Anyway, without more than minimal potty breaks over a grueling ten days, we read individual writings that hopefully will morph into some profound document, good enough to be called a thesis. To keep my stress level at bay, I swam in Brown’s solar heated pool, finding I could resolve entanglements to the argument/evidence portion of my essay while paddling a kickboard.

Happily, there was down-time, provided rewrites were completed. So, I joined camp-follower-husband-Dave as we looked for art venues unique to New England. We also slurped many variations of clam chowder and sampled mac and cheese with lobster; it’s delicious, especially at Paragon, a restaurant central to Brown’s main campus.

Nancy Spero 'Cri du Coeur' (detail) (2005)
Nancy Spero ‘Cri du Coeur’ (detail) (2005)

On one excursion, we drove an hour north of Providence to the Worcester Art Museum. Opened in 1898, this neo-classical structure houses one of the first twelfth century Romanesque Chapter Houses transported to America. WAM’s summer exhibition was the late Nancy Spero’s hand-printed frieze, Cri du Coeur (2005), which depicts grieving women. Dedicated to her deceased husband, artist Leon Golub, this one hundred-sixty foot long by two foot wide work on paper uniquely hangs at floor level as it undulates around the gallery. Abstractions of pthalo blues and greens abruptly turn to representational pen and ink renderings, revealing women, ‘praying or pleading to the heavens,’ quotes Spero, who was grieving for the loss of her spouse. The viewer looks down upon this work as if these recurring Egyptian female mourners are trying to free themselves from some primordial goo that contributes to their collective pain and suffering.

Adjacent to Worcester is Oxford, Mass., birthplace of Clara Barton and also my grandmother Gladys Wellington. I’m not sure grandma would appreciate the box stores and highway interchanges in her rural North Oxford. We found one of Barton’s domiciles, now the Barton Center, a year-round camp for diabetic children. Later we joined nephew William Stenzel, a recent graduate of UMass, Amherst, for dinner at VIA Italian Table, a bistro in a remodeled Worcester factory. Their breaded eggplant smothered in tomato sauce, and ricotta cannoli are worth getting off the Mass Turnpike, exit ten or eleven.

Dave and I visited Newport, Rhode Island on one of my off days. Its downtown is crowded with beach bag vendors along with lobster roll shacks. Condos and hotels cram into dockside lots where nineteenth century warehouses once resided. A few of these remaining weathered shingled structures now house restaurants sporting shanty town motifs. We had dinner at Red Parrot, a three story fish restaurant with maple-spindled captain’s chairs. The boiled lobster and fried cod were acceptable given the massive amount of tourists they serve quickly.

Nearby, Fort Adams is a nineteenth century defense built to protect Narragansett Bay from the British. The Fort is home to various famed music festivals and parts have become a visitor hostel. Dave and I walked its perimeter adjacent to Newport’s congested boat harbor; observing vacationers on vintage schooners and weekenders on sleek racing machines navigate for water space.

Once bypassed by the wealthy because of its allegiance to the Tories during the Revolution, Newport began to entice New York’s Gilded-Agers when their summering on Staten Island and the Jersey Shore became too accessible to New York’s working classes, who could train out from their tenements for a day of picnicking. Many of the so-called ‘cottages’ reside on Belleview Avenue, now open to the public who can purchase day passes, thus visiting multiple estates.  

It was pouring rain as we dripped through Vanderbilt mansions (Marble House and The Breakers) both designed by Richard Morris Hunt. These castles, built to show off fortunes acquired from post-Civil War industrialization, are over stuffed with velvet and brocade furnishings that crowd parlors and libraries–hard to imagine these edifices were called beach houses. Occasionally, a breeze can be felt in rooms where French doors open onto expansive lawns overlooking Narragansett Bay. Second floor bedrooms continue the opulence with carved/upholstered bedsteads and matching chaise-lounges.  Dressing tables still overflow with accoutrements just waiting for a maid’s assistance in the boudoir. Sterling sailing trophies and model yachts are found in anterooms as are billiard tables.

Thanks to Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey, kitchens and pantries are now open to the public. Copper pots drape over marble countering while coal-fed ovens that once puffed steam and smoke, feeding round-the-clock dining guests, now lie still. Pantries are filled with monogrammed china and a banker’s safe keeps silverware from being pilfered. How ironic that some who walk these halls having donned head-sets with the pre-recorded docent tour, are descended from  nineteenth century’s  working classes—urban slum dwellers kept in squalor because of the disproportionate  wealth.

Ten days of PhD boot camp ended too quickly. Before catching our Alaska Airlines flight from Boston’s Logan Airport, Dave and I spent a day walking South Boston’s waterfront. No longer just a harbor for fishing trawlers or merchant ships, the area has high-rise condos, sailboat rentals, and our destination, Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art, ICA.  Built in 2006 by architects Diller Scofido + Renfro, the museum has evolved from former modern art establishments, dating to 1936.  ICA’s boxy building lunges over Boston Harbor like some periscope a child might design for a science project. Tankers and water taxies are visible from most galleries and can be enjoyed by relaxing in a large drop down window/ auditorium complete with computers that explain ICA’s art. A cafe provides dockside dining and outdoor bleachers find museum goers napping in the salt-sea-air.

Jason Middlebrook 'Finding Square' (2011)
Jason Middlebrook ‘Finding Square’ (2011)

In ICA’s main gallery, Jason Middlebrook’s Finding Square (2011) is a large acrylic and maple frame devoid of interior imagery–a twist, as traditional painting is usually encased. In the beginning of the millennium, artist William Kentridge boldly showed charcoal drawings unframed, using office supply clips and pins to hang his exquisite figurations. The French philosopher Jacques Derrida’s book, Truth in Painting, stretches minds by suggesting the theme of a work also encompasses its frame and outer environs.  But Middlebrook presents his audience with nothing but the plastered gallery wall within, yet the absent masterpiece is duly noted.

ICA’s summer exhibition was the many paradoxes of Barry McGee. This artist graduated in the early nineties from the San Francisco Art Institute yet engaged in outsider-street art- graffiti. McGee’s jacket, pocketed with spray cans, hangs in the show as does a wall of aerosol cans without labels, glistening like bowling trophies. Are graffiti artists street thugs or are they canonized artists?

Barry McGee Installation (Exterior, 2013)
Barry McGee Installation (2013) (Exterior)

McGee also includes other artists’ work, often making who did what and when inconsequential. Stacks of surf- and skate-boards lie in corners while mannequins spray paint on gallery walls. Tessellated hand painted tiles cover some walls in unpleasing color patterns while plywood paneling bulges to the point of breakage.  Friends provided McGee with some of his reusable discards, like a stack of old television monitors, perhaps playing gibberish in this exhibition?  

Barry McGee Installation (2013) (Interior)
Barry McGee Installation (2013) (Interior)

A dumpster, the kind used on construction sites, is center stage. Filled with household cast-offs, this large container is actually made from wood and is thus a faux dumpster. Inside is a replica of a public bathroom revealing a guy/mannequin spray painting the mirror above a bank of dingy sinks. McGee’s show is gritty and grimy.  We don’t want to think about what becomes of our old electronics, or items thrown away when remodeling personal spaces, as we want to enjoy what is new.  Detritus becomes a hazard. Reusable, it organizes into art to be contemplated becoming everyone’s concern.

Barry McGee’s catalog is available on Amazon. Information about restaurants, artists and museums can be Googled.

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Jean Bundy is a writer/painter living in Anchorage. She holds degrees from The University of Alaska, The University of Chicago and The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and is a member of AICA/USA. Jean is a PhD candidate with IDSVA. Her whaling abstracts and portraits have been shown from Barrow to New York City.


She can be reached at: 38144 [at] alaska [dot] net