Saturday, January 16, 2016

Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me - A Movie That Strikes A Chord

by Drew Martin
Glen Campbell sang Rhinestone Cowboy back in 1975 when I was six years old. I feel like that song is in my DNA because I heard it when music just seemed like it was part of the atmosphere. Campbell was the first signer to win a Grammy award in both Country and Contemporary in the same year.

I just watched Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me, wow, what an amazing documentary. For one thing I got to rediscover how talented he is as a musician. The film really does a good job of expressing his gifts, such as his perfect-pitch tone (he was even in the Beach Boys to fill in after Brian Wilson had his nervous breakdown), and his great guitar playing (which I had not known about).

The focus on the film, however, is about his decline from Alzheimer's and how he and his family (who perform with him) struggle with the disease.

A little more than a year ago I wrote a blog post about Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory, a film about social worker Dan Cohen who visited America’s nursing homes in a quest to unlock the minds of people with dementia having them listen to music they liked in their youth. It is remarkable how unresponsive people all of a sudden come alive when they tune in.

This documentary about Campbell should be watched in tandem with Alive Inside, because it shows how this famous musician, who cannot recall the names of his closest family members or answer simple facts, can turn around, go onstage, and perform his songs in front of thousands of people.

Pictured above, Campbell and his talented daughter, Ashley, dueling it out onstage during his farewell tour.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Body Paint King

by Drew Martin
Body painting is older than clothing, and while several modern artists have incorporated it into their work - most famously Yves Klein’s Anthropom√©tries, and Keith Haring's paintings on dancer Bill T. Jones, and singer Grace Jones, it is still often looked at as a free pass to stare at a naked (more-often-than-not young female) body. I have recently started following "Ed the Artist" on Instagram @edtheartist1 who has claimed the title as Body Paint King. Raised in DMV (DC, MD, VA) and based in Atlanta, Ed regularly posts pictures of his models at photo shoots, and sometimes of him painting them. While many images are more titillating than others (because the model's body dominates the design), he often finds the right balance where everything comes together nicely and his talent shines through. In those moments Ed takes the art of body painting to another level and redefines what it can be. Here are a few of my favorites:

Addendum: I am adding here other great body paint jobs Ed has done since this post.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Seymour Hear More

by Drew Martin
I saw an interesting documentary today by Ethan Hawke about Seymour Bernstein, the American pianist, composer, and music teacher who turned away from public performances at the age of 50 in order to enjoy a calmer life.

Most of the film is a direct conversation between him and one of several friends and students.

At the age of 15 Bernstein said he was aware that when his practicing went well, everything in his life seemed to be harmonized by that. And when it did not go well, he was out of sorts with people. From this he concluded that...

"The real essence of who we are resides in our talent."

Many times his close-up, placid face dominates the frame and he speaks so directly to the camera that you lock eyes with him. His musings border a line between artistic philosophy and guru self-help advice.

"Motivated by a love of music and possessed by a clear understanding of the reasons for practicing you can establish so deep an accord between your musical self and your personal self that eventually music and life will interact in a never-ending cycle of fulfillment."

When asked by an off-camera Hawke about extremely talented yet extremely horrible people and whether there is a connection between the monsters and the gift, he responds:

"The contrast between the unbelievable attainment of art, and the unpredictability of the social world is so great that it makes them neurotic."

Bernstein relishes and thrives in his solitude. He has lived by himself in a one-bedroom apartment for nearly 60 years. He expresses trepidation of social interaction outside his music world and explains that even when someone is really close to you, one comment may dissolve a friendship. He takes comfort in the "predictability" of music.

"When Beethoven put a B-flat down, that's there forever. Because of the predictability of music, when we work at it, we have a sense of order, harmony, predictability and something we can control."

He says that and then switches gears...

"Your initial response to music occurs without intellectual analysis. Gifted children, for example, often project deep musical feeling without being aware of musical structure or historical facts. It is this kind of innocence from which adults can learn. Therefore in practicing avoid excess of analysis and allow the music to reveal its own beauty. A beauty that is answered by something deep within you."

Hawke asks Bernstein how he felt when his father used to say he had three daughters and a pianist. Not only does he respond negatively but then he explains about a "transparent dome" he protects himself with that ravens whirl around, and says that his father was one of the ravens pecking at the glass. This patriarch is one of many people he explains that hope for your failure. But Bernstein was world-class and got rave reviews. He even performed on a grand piano for his fellow soldiers during the Korean War. These personal stories play nicely into his comment that "the struggle is what makes the art form" and his expressing that the dissonance, harmony and resolution of life is captured in music and that it is the dissonance that gives meaning to the resolution.

The ideal of music as a universal language because it is a language of feeling, also becomes his religion. He talks about the ecstasy and transcendence of music and that while religion requires faith, music is present in its language. His theology is of a god within us, which he calls a "spiritual reservoir." 

The film is full of his great musings and conversations of craft versus talent, the effect of nervousness (that more people should be a lot more nervous and that many artists are not nervous enough), the importance of composing to be closer to the creative process, and how learning to listen to yourself play will allow your to better listen to other people, which he complements with a comment...

"The greatest compliment your can give people is to tell them the truth."

The film ends with a wondrous Bernstein saying...

"I never dreamt that with my own two hands I could touch the sky."

Lily Yeh Yeah Yeahs

by Drew Martin
When I see a movie (in this case on Netflix) with a lowly one-star rating, I usually check to see if it is really bad or really good. Most of the time it is the former but I recently lucked out. The other day the lone star The Barefoot Artist caught my eye and it was something I am really glad I watched. It is a documentary about Lily Yeh; her work as an artist, and an emotional detour to her ancestral home on the southern island Hainan, and other parts of China to reconnect with her step-siblings who her father left behind for a harsh fate while he went off to have a good life with her mother in Taiwan.

A visual metaphor for this part of the film is when she and the various relatives and friends in China piece together an extensive and beautifully drawn map her father made of the island.

When Yeh came to America in the 60s as a young lady to study painting her dedication to traditional Chinese landscape painting was challenged by the New York artworld's emphasis on Pop Art and happenings. And while she had professional representation and envisioned a full career as a gallery artist, she ended up taking a very different and quite remarkable path, which led her to do community art projects in troubled parts of the world.

The top image here is a site she created in response to seeing a depressing animal-shed-like place for the remains of the 1994 Rwanda genocide victims. She understood that the survivors of the massacre were distraught by this situation because they felt that their loved ones could not rest in peace until they had a respectable burial site.

The picture underneath that is one of her more extensive projects - the multiple-block arts garden in Philadelphia called the Village of Arts and Humanities, which is where she really cut her teeth and assumed the role as a public artist, director, community organizer and fundraiser.

Her work transforms rough abandoned lots and other unattractive neglected spaces into colorful and peaceful oases with bright painted and tiled murals, organic sculptures, and quirky masonry walls. There is no need for validating art-world reviews of these projects, because the reward is in the faces of the communities who get to share these installed gifts.

Yeh talks about wanting to create dustless places, a term used to describe the serene environments of Chinese landscape paintings. There is a motivation in her to better sad locations through colorful art and community collaboration, and there is also a side she expresses to find peace in a world where her beloved father never felt complete after leaving his first family, and one that was also troubled through her own failed marriage. She expresses that her idea of home is not a location but that place where she feels connected in art.

Friday, January 1, 2016

A Fresh Start in 2016

by Drew Martin
The African-American community is arguably the most creative and inventive culture in the world, especially when trends bubble up from small, close-knit neighborhoods as a way to get local attention and respect, and anything mainstream or out of reach gets customized for that community.

Yesterday I watched Fresh Dressed, a 2015 documentary about the history of fashion behind hip-hop. It's a wonderful sartorial time capsule that begins with the territorial gang outfits of the boroughs of New York City, builds up to the big-name performers with their own clothing lines, and then returns to high-end brands with staying power that were once sought after, when the popularity of musician-backed lines waned; an issue of style being too closely associated with a personality.

One thing emphasized was how hip-hop music put the spotlight on street styles that were already there, and how as hip-hop spread around the world and people liked the music but could not always relate to the English lyrics, the fashion became an even more important way for kids in other countries to identify with the music.

Ralph McDaniels, the creator and host of Video Music Box says that the colors of hip hop came from the spray paint can selections that were favored in graffiti and that the first canvases for hip hop individuality were on the backs of jean jackets.

Dapper Dan's Boutique in Harlem was the first store that was tailored to the hip-hop scene. Dan did with fashion what hip-hop did with music: he sampled and mixed fashion, and brought the music scene's imagination into reality. He also introduced urban luxury brands when luxury brands were unattainable for people living in the projects. Dan did big, bold outfits as well as simple things, like put Louis Vuitton's LV mark on caps, when they would not think about doing something like that. Dan says he blackenized those famous designers for his people.

A "fresh starts with the feet first" comment leads into a funny anecdote by rapper Jim Jones about the importance of sneakers. His school required a uniform so sometimes kids would fake a sprained ankle in order to be able to wear at least one of their new sneakers, albeit while fake-limping with a cane.

Now people buy fat laces but before they were available for purchase they had to be customized. Kids would take the standard laces that came with the sneakers, then stretch, starch, and iron them before lacing them the opposite way - looped over the eyelets.

Personally, I was less interested in seeing the late-comers such as Kanye, and was more interested in the beginning of the movement. I especially liked the breakdown of the "flavors" from the different parts of NYC that were unique to each borough:

A guy from Brooklyn would have on Clarks, shark skins, Cazal glasses with no lens in it, and a Kangol crease like I don't know what. That was a Brooklyn cat. He didn't have to say anything. You knew he was from Brooklyn.

A guy from Harlem would have on...a velour sweat suit, and whatever brand the sweat suit was from, he would have the sneaker to match.

Same with the Bronx. The Bronx was a mix of Harlem and Brooklyn together.

Queens - - Queens had their own flow too.

If one of your New Year resolutions is to take your fresh to another level then definitely watch this flick.