Nov 29, 2011

Are You Not Entertained?

Inspiration has been hard to come by in these late November days. The greyness is thick, endless, unrelenting and unmoving, smug in its stifling tofu blandness. New tires spin aimlessly on a car that's been flipped upside down and left to rot. Nothing goes forwards fast enough, if at all. To borrow from Beckett, "Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes... it's awful." No kidding.

The bright spot -and it's a weird bright spot -has been politics, specifically American politics. The race to the 2012 Presidential elections has been spectacularly theatrical, the personalities and behaviors ribald and riveting. Meltdowns! Mistresses! Racist rocks! Rocking racists! Bumps! Stumps! Ooops! Loop-de-loops! Since living in the United States, I just can't get enough of its mad, bad, dangerous-to-know, good/bad/ugly aesthetic. An American-born, Canadian-living friend told me she thinks of America as bacon: it's greasy, delicious, bad for you and good for your tastebuds. It's addictive, unhealthy, and even the smell of it is enough to convince you that you need it. Without it, so many other things would just be boring, grey... depressingly bland. November forever. Ugh.

Yet it's anything but bland in the world of Twitter. At every GOP debate, the microblogging site has resembled a hummingbird on meth: observations, opinions, fact checks, exchanges and retweets come at breakneck speed, with nary a moment to think twice. I've partaken and tried to keep up, @ing one person, RTing another, the new linguistics of a modern communication long and comfortably entrenched into my 21st century vernacular. More than an education, my enthusiasm for the spectacle of American politics has opened a door to connecting with some smart, witty, talented people, using a technology I couldn't have guessed at ten years ago. Perhaps that's the magic.

The sense of event-with-a-capital-E combined with all the elements of theater implies a shared love of real-life drama that in no way diminishes the seriousness of what's being discussed. Online users are like critics' unions, decimating, disassembling, disabusing and discarding, while offering credit where it's due. But unlike theater-theater, political theater is a forum where the off-stage antics of its players are every bit as vital -in a theatrical sense -as their onstage performance. While some larger networks utilize the commentary of silly tweeters in far to serious a manner, it's worth remembering that there are many credible, smart tweeters whose 140-character commentary blasts open new neural pathways, not to mention super-bright highways, along the freeway of 21st century American political life.

As if to match the velocity on that road, I find myself zooming by old interests. Trips to the art gallery replace the theater; the lecture hall goes before the symphony hall; the arena sits in lieu the club. Much as a reflection of my age, it's a reflection of shifting routes in those neural pathways (though I should add, I still love the theater and the symphony).
But the combination of politics and tweeting has brought out a childlike sense of play, something long missing amidst the grey November days.

During a recent GOP debate that I began exchanging theatrical-esque theories on roles for candidates, especially within a (not altogether unsuitable) high school setting. My talented companion and I decided Rick Perry would be the boisterous gym coach who urges you to run faster even though your lungs are ready to explode, Jon Hunstman, the possibly-swoon-worthy English teacher who, by tossing off an insulting comment about your favorite poet, turns you off for life. Herman Cain would be the ever-frustrated business teacher who puts his hands on his head when the class gets too loud, while Newt Gingrich is the perpetually sour-faced math teacher who gives you a yelling-at whenever you ask too many seemingly-dumb questions. Michelle Bachmann would be the history teacher who'd assign you an essay and write you another one back if she didn't like what you wrote. Rick Santorum would be the science teacher who'd argue with his own students, Ron Paul the classics teacher who'd go off on hour-long tangents and entertain student ideas about smoking in the caf.

Theater. Imagination. Possibility. Politics.

More, please. I love my bacon, and I'm not prepared to live without it.

Not now, or ever.

Nov 9, 2011

Hey, There's My Kid!

Showing the world my art was a strange experience.

By "art" I don't mean my writing, which anyone can see online (or in print, if you happened to subscribe to various music zines in the 1990s), or (some 0f) my photography, which can also be seen in various online spots. No, I mean my painting.

Painting was an obsession for me in the early aughties. It was the "last" art I discovered and sought instruction in. It was, to borrow a phrase from Bukowski, my last creative whore - all the others were gone. Used up, dried out, buried under the weight of too many experiences and expectations too soon. "Why not drawing?" I thought. Why not, indeed.

My teacher was an experienced professional artist and instructor who encouraged curiosity and connection -with our fellow budding artists, with visual art of the past and the present, and with our chosen media. After a few weeks of basics in pencil drawing, she slowly introduced the 123s of watercolor.

"Have you painted before?" she asked me during one session, cocking an eyebrow at a snow-covered branch I was working on.

"No... why?"

Beat. A pause.

"Really?"

"Never?"

"No."

Another pause.

"You really look like you have. This... this seems to come quite naturally to you."

It was mere months before I'd shrugged off the watery coil of watercolor and moved on to the rich gooey sea of oils. I loved the sludge-like quality, the caramel richness of colors, the bumpy-buttery ripples and waves of texture. I even loved the sharp, acidic smell.

Many years and many canvases later, writing came calling again, as it inevitably would. Drawing came and went, as my visual side found expression in other things - a rediscovery of photography that ran parallel to technological advacenemtns in digital technology, experiments with black sharpies, trying out color conte for the first time. Drawing and painting had a surprisingly joyous union during a particularly experimental period last autumn, which, I have no doubt, planted the idea of my moving to New York City. Something about trying certain media together, at once, in totally new ways, blasted open neural pathways I hadn't known existed.

And so it was, returning to purely painting. Chris Pemberton, co-founder of the Toronto live painting event Art Battle, invited me to be a part of the Signals From The DEW Line, an event honoring Canadian thinker and author Marshall McLuhan. Held at the storied Gladstone Hotel, the event was a blend of poetry and painting that took as its theme McLuhan's idea that "art, at its most significant, is a distant early warning (or D.E.W.) system that can always be relied on to tell the old culture what is beginning to happen." Artists, then, are signifiers of change in society, of new ways of thinking and expressing and being. Heady stuff.

I didn't think of any of this when the 18-inch square canvas was given to me. But there was something awfully stimulating about painting with a purpose. It wasn't just some mamby-pamby thing I was doing anymore. I had a due date. I had a deadline. I had a place in the 25-painterly grid. And so, I set about, letting equal parts instinct and experience guide me, as Soundcheck blared in the background and the taste of strong coffee sat on the tongue. A squirt of paint here, a brush stroke there; it all came together, and the piece was still tacky when I carefully walked it through the doors of the Gladstone Hotel lastnight. Suddenly this little canvas was more than just homework: it was my child.

My work has never, ever been exhibited before, not individually, and certainly not amongst the work of other, more accomplished and experienced artists. Once my piece was up, there was a momentary sense of "Oh-Gawd, mine's-crap"-like comparison, but it didn't last. This private act I engage in, of drawing and painting, of going past words (my admitted comfort zone and obvious stock in trade) was being scrutinized, observed, judged and enjoyed. It was like seeing a little one in their first school concert; some kids look more turned-out and comfortable than others, there's a lot of waving and smiling, you wonder if they'll get through it intact. When the whole class is up there taking a bow at the end, you can't help but feel proud -of not only them, but of everyone's else's kid, and the fact your kids all worked together. It fortifies your sense of faith in humanity.












And that's just how it felt, to look at my painting, hanging there with 24 other, entirely-other works. As Christopher observed, "Yours is so very different." Of course my kid is different, I wanted to say. I didn't plan it that way, but I'm not surprised that's how s/he turned out. It's nice to be with a crowd, but not of it. Even so, different-ness doesn't guarantee confidence. Leaving my painting at the Gladstone was strange, and a bit stressful (it's exhibited there with the others through Monday). I had a momentary twinge of -what, grief? separation anxiety? parental sentimentality? -when I walked into my tiny studio space at home and immediately noted that particular painting's absence. It had become a sparky little fixture amongst the larger, older stalwarts, who seemed to hover and surround it in a protective huddle. I got cold thinking of it hanging in silence and darkness all night, alone and open to the elements of unfamiliar eyeballs and sneaky urban spiders.


But my little one isn't alone - it's with 24 other works, all with parnets of their own. There's something reassuring about that - about being together, distinct, joined, and individual, all at once. Sooner or later, we have to let our kids go. We never stop thinking of the days we spent in squawking, squealing, squirming color, bringing this thing to life. That energy is on our own stained hands, the back aches, the neck kinks, the multi-color sinks and the spiky smells around us. We send our kids out into the world, and get right back to making a new one, over and over.

All photos from my Flickr photostream.
Oh yeah: My painting is the super-dark one just above the man-opens-curtain-sees-kitty work. It didn't photograph well -at all.
My kid's difficult that way. Sigh.

Nov 4, 2011

No Artificiality

A recent blog post on the organization A Work Of Heart was met with huge interest, and proved very popular across the internet. People applaud the marriage of creativity and commerce, because it doesn't smack of the patronizing attitudes that so often dominate the conversation around aid.

Far too often there is a kind of smug arrogance over the role one may've played in some do-good initiative or another; one becomes more interested in our laser-pointed act of generosity to The Less Fortunate (who always, it must be said, remain nameless and faceless in their poverty) than in providing empowerment to achieve a livelihood not unlike our own. Western aid is often characterized by an agenda of righteousness, utterly lacking in awareness of history or culture. Self-empowerment, self-determination, responsibility and accountability... what's that?

FELA! may have some answers. The mega-musical, produced by Jay-Z and Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, revolves around the life and music of Nigerian artist Fela Kuti. While Kuti may have passed away in 1997, his work -and the show itself - underlines his political and artistic legacies for audiences, both white and black, Western and non-Western, in the 21st century. Kuti's life revolved around politics and art, the hows and why and wherefores of the two intersecting, and the power created therein to affect real change, both in his short time on earth, and past it, for all time, for all Nigerians. Kuti's sound is a musical smorgasbord of influences; he liberally mixed the sounds of indigenous African beats (namely Yoruba drums) with big American-sounding horns and twanging James Brown-style guitars. His work even betrays Middle Eastern influence; there's a distinctly Klezmer mood in "Mr. Follow Follow" mixed in with the funky beats and bleating horns.

In FELA! the songs as used both as plot points and party anthems, and perhaps, both; the party becomes political, and the political becomes a party. "Water No Get Enemy", "Expensive Shit" and "Zombie" are seamlessly interwoven throughout the piece, providing dialogue and narrative drive, along with groove and timeliness. The work may take place somewhere around 1977, but FELA! is less a period piece than it is an evocation of the power of music to empower a people and a nation. One nation under a groove, indeed.

Groove isn't something that Toronto audiences immediately respond to in the theater, however. FELA! opened at the city's Canon Theatre at the end of October, brought to Canada by Mirvish Productions. The show's charismatic lead, Sahr Ngaujah immediately sensed some Canadian shyness during a recent Friday night performance, and he wasn't pleased. The accomplished build the energy, doing call-and-responses, storming off the stage James Brown-style, and getting us on our feet to dance. Ngaujah also showed off his able improv abilities when, during one of his character's asides chatting up the wonders of igbo (or marijuana), an eager audience member shrieked "Pass!" as he lit up what looked like a gigantic joint. Ngaujah looked up with a wicked smile, clearly delighted, and began riffing on the ups and downs of reefer-sharing. It was a warm, off-the-cuff moment that underlined the human heart beating at the center of FELA! as well as the steely resolve of its title character to play by his own rules, come hell or highwater.

As in Kuti's life, the enemy in FELA! is the violent Nigerian government of the 1970s (and arguably, beyond that time period). On a larger scale, it attacks the endemic corruption of worldwide governments by corporate interests. The decision to have an unseen enemy, rather than actual physicalized figures, renders their evil deeds -the rape of Kuti's "Queens", the murder of his mother -more horrific, even as it solidifies Kuti's defiance. Giant screens on either side of the stage portray various shots from the time and from the musician's own life; scenes of mobs, arrests, beatings, of newspaper headlines, of shots of Kuti's compound and The Shrine (the interior of which is the setting for the musical itself) provide a history lesson, but it's wrapped in the pulsing sound of Afrobeat, the sonic hybrid Kuti pioneered and perfected. The production's onstage band, including the talented Morgan Price (who does tenor sax solos) ups the energy ante, and provides able solemnity where needed. Captivating performances by the work's female leads balance out the machismo. British actor Melanie Marshall does a stunning turn as Fela's mother Funmilayo Kuti, her coloratura soprano soaring as she inspires her son even past the grave. L.A.-based actor Paulette Ivory is a force of nature as Sandra, Fela's American wife. Whether she's standing with hand on hip, head cocked, or belting out "Lover" in her strong pop-inflected voice, Ivory's presence is, as we suspect with Sandra, one to be reckoned with.


Interestingly, Toronto critics, amidst their praise of the popular Tony Award-winning work, noted the lack of portraying Kuti's polygamy, and the fact FELA! is lacking in physicalized bad guys - but those criticisms ignore what this work is really about: one man using his art to fight for change. The finale encapsulates the twin impulses toward art and politics that characterized Kuti's life, combinining his untimely passing with that of other key political figures. It's eerie -and eye-opening -to witness coffin after coffin being carried onstage and piled artfully in one corner, each coffin bearing the name of either a murdered figure (like Ken Saro-Wiwa), or a company (like Shell Oil) who must die so that The Shrine (aka Nigeria) might live. One understands more clearly the legacy Kuti left, not only for his own country, not only for his fans, but for people who are fighting for justice, dignity, empowerment, and respect.

Those issues are crystalline in their presentation, but they aren't delivered with any didacticism or smugness. FELA! is too smart for that. Instead, the show is education via entertainment, enlightenment through electrical musical energy. The Torontonians at the Canon knew some of the songs, and could be heard (softly) singing the words or humming along. The subtext was understood, but they couldn't help but get lost in the music. That's the power of art, well done and well-executed. If only this marvelous Mirvish Production was playing longer than two weeks -this is precisely the kind of entertaining, electrifying, timely programming Toronto theatre needs. If you're in the polite Canadian city, make time between now and Sunday (its closing day) to see FELA! -and make sure you shout, dance, and make noise. Not to be charitable - just because it feels so damn good.

Photo credits:
Top photo: Paulette Ivory and Sahr Ngaujah by Tristram Kenton
Middle photo: Catherine Foster, Sahr Ngaujah and Nicole de Weever ©Monique Carboni
Bottom photo: Sahr Ngaujah as Fela Kuti and the Broadway cast of FELA! ©Monique Carboni