It perhaps isn’t too ironic that Charles Dickens’ opening paragraph of A Tale of Two Cities can also serve as a vivid motif for the University of Michigan Museum of Art’s New Technologies and Victorian Society: Early British Photographs from the UMMA Collection.
As Dickens writes in his 1859 novel contrasting two opposed worldviews of late 18th century Industrial-era European culture: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only."
As he himself notes, Dickens might as well have been writing of his own time. And as illustrated in UMMA Curator Emerita Carole McNamara’s selection of some of this museum’s most significant photographic holdings, mid-19th century England would have indeed been among the best and worst of times. As the exhibit shows us by example (and McNamara’s choices are certainly peerless), England was undergoing rapid transitions in both technology and society that would affect and influence the world.
The Victorian era—measured by the 63 year reign of Queen Victoria of the House of Hanover; dated 1837 (on her assumption of the British throne) to precisely the turn of the 20th century—was a paradoxical period of peace, prosperity, refined sensibilities, and highly moralistic national self-confidence often described as Pax Britannica because of the progressive rise of British prosperity fostered by the nation’s worldwide empire.
But it was also a time of sometimes brutal industrial consolidation coupled with an unprecedented population growth as millions of British subjects continued their equally unprecedented migration around the country as well as around the world—and particularly from the British countryside to the country’s urban centers. London especially swelled from one and a half million inhabitants at the beginning of the Victorian era to more than triple that number by the end of the century.
There to capture this extraordinary social, political, economic, and cultural transition was a technological marvel that would reshape the history of art as well as how we see the world. For, prior to the innovation of the photographic camera in the early decades of the 19th century, draughtsmanship and painting had always vacillated between impulses of realism and fancy. And although various forms of pre-camera photographic equipment go as far back as ancient China and ancient Greece, the notion of photography as a practical technology was spurred in the early-19th century through the development of chemical photographic processes.
As McNamara says in her introduction to New Technologies of this era:
“The first half-century of British photography charts the journey of a new medium with distinct expressive and artistic potentials. Although photography served as an aid to science and exploration, it captured aspects of British society in ways that are poetic and artistic. Early photographers exploited existing pictorial conventions and their subject matter is often derived from painting traditions—portraits of family members and friends, still-lifes of household objects, and landscapes.”
In short, spreading quickly around the world, mid-19th century photography emancipated art from its dependence on subjective creativity by giving photographers the ability to capture images drawn directly from life. And these pioneers were quick to explore the new technology with increasing alacrity.
Some of the earliest images on display—three 1844 salted paper prints from calotype negatives: “Part of Queen’s College, Oxford”, “Loch Katrine” (from the “Sun Pictures of Scotland”), and “Bust of Patroclus” (plate five from “The Pencil of Nature”)—reflect the range of British photography at this seminal period as crafted in what can only be described as an inspired creativity by William Henry Fox Talbot.
Fox, one of England’s foremost photographic technologists of the time, invented a photographic procedure through his silver salt and nitrate process that made it possible to produce as many positive prints as anyone would wish of any image. And Fox’s forays into what is now called contact printing fostered the development of landscape photography and artful photojournalism with a zestful fidelity that’s still breathtaking today.
Among the socially-oriented documentary works on display are David Octavious Hill’s circa 1840s carbon print “St. Andrews, Baiting the Lines” drawn from his “A Series of Calotype Views of St. Andrews” and John Thomson’s equally penetrating 1876-77 Woodbury type “The Crawlers” drawn from his “Street Life in London” series; both works where the emphasis is to give viewers a sense of what life would have been like for the 19th century British working class.
This is surely among the worst of times as the photographs clearly show us a society caught on the moorings of seriously pressed workers (in Hill’s photo) and a thoroughly economically depressed mother with child on her lap (in Thomson’s photo) even as the country was itself among the more enlightened polities in the world at that time.
Likewise, as we see in New Technologies, portraiture would be slow, but steady in evolving. Largely because of the length of time necessary to develop negative plates through bulky equipment, the posture of early portraiture sitters is far more formal than what we’re used to seeing. As such, John Adamson and Robert Adamson’s circa 1841 salted paper print from calotype negative “Sir David Brewster (1781-1868)” is a decidedly straight-forward no nonsense visage.
Yet even as a palpable steely discomfort renders Brewster’s portrait rather starched, this famed Scottish scientist, mathematician, and editor of the influential 18-volume Edinburgh Encyclopedia (as well, coincidently, inventor of the first three-dimensional lenticular stereoscope camera) poses patiently for the brother Adamsons. Focusing on the seated Brewster’s white hair as well as left-hand crossed on his waist; “Sir David Brewster (1781-1868)” crafts a decorous ceremonial portraiture that’s common to this day.
Technology itself is best represented by Scotsman James Stewart’s 1878 albumen print, “No. 247.” This seemingly simple profile of a steam locomotive is actually handsomely pregnant in both its photographic and technical articulation. Certainly one of the most important inventions prior to the Victorian era, and also a technology that was relentlessly worked upon through this period, the external combustion engine was of as much fascination to the Victorians as rockets still are to us in our time.
Stewart’s composition is flawless. The steam locomotive is depicted squarely in the center of the photograph with remarkable attention paid to its sleek design. A concise masterwork, Stewart pays attention to the locomotive from its striking forward smoke box to its perched cab with the photo being crafted sufficiently to scale as to accent its curvilinear brake shoes in contrast to its horizontal air brake pump. “No. 247” is a fastidious rendering of this marvel of 19th century machinery.
But perhaps the most stunning composition in New Technologies is Julia Margret Cameron’s circa 1865 “The Kiss of Peace” albumen print. Cameron, a deeply religious woman who only began photography at middle age, most often photographed her family. Yet in this inspired composition of friend and domestic depicting the Christian tradition of “the kiss of peace” practiced as a gesture of friendly acceptance, Cameron’s “The Kiss of Peace” is also a keenly observed proto-feminist mediation on the status of women in Victorian society.
The photograph’s mood is reminiscent of the distinctive British Pre-Raphaelite art that had a uniquely influential popularity only shortly before the advent of photography. As such, the models’ wind-blown hair, simple cloth drape, and their languid diagonal gaze mirror an inward melancholy that in turn suggests that period’s conception of the supposed innocence of femininity—but Cameron clearly knows better. As knowingly heartfelt as it is aesthetically accomplished, her “Kiss of Peace”—certainly one of the most famed photographs of the 19th century—is a profound mediation on the paradoxical symbolic and heightened dramatic sensibility of the Victorian era.
John Carlos Cantú has written extensively on our community's visual arts in a number of different periodicals.
University of Michigan Museum of Art: “New Technologies and Victorian Society: Early British Photographs from the UMMA Collection” will run through May 8, 2016. The UMMA is located at 525 S. State Street. The Museum is open Tuesday-Saturday 11 am–5 pm; and Sunday 12–5 pm. For information, call 734-764-0395.
The new Kickshaw Theatre is kicking off with a bold promise that it will be presenting theater with a bite by staging Stefanie Zadravec's The Electric Baby as its first production.
The Electric Baby is a play with drama, humor and a social conscience. But it is also burdened by its shifting styles, its dips into magic realism and its central symbolic image, a baby that "glows like the moon."
In choosing to take on this particular play, director Lynn Lammers dares to challenge her audience to give in to the playwright's excesses to mine for the moments of gold. She has the benefit of directing an outstanding and dedicated cast that shares her sensitivity and seriousness to material that often seems too fragile.
An immigrant mother in a rundown apartment is our guide. The Romanian immigrant, Natalia, talks directly to the audience, suggesting helpful folk remedies or telling fanciful folk tales, all while rocking her baby. The baby is hope in an unusual form.
The action begins with a middle-aged couple engaged in a fierce argument while waiting for a valet to bring their car after visiting the husband of their deceased daughter. The woman becomes enraged and hurries into the night.
Nearby, an immigrant African cabdriver picks up a young man and woman who have just dramatically stormed out of their low-paying restaurant jobs but become embroiled in their own argument about the woman's side job as an "escort."
The taxi and the running woman collide, setting off a series of encounters. In the process Zadravec explores a myriad of social issues from the impact of loss on a longstanding marriage, the problems of aging in an economic downturn, the problems of the young forced into dead-end jobs, the problems of immigrants trying to make it in a less than friendly America. To do this, she moves back and forth from realism to folk tale and mysticism. But the Kickshaw cast makes it work.
Vanessa Sawson's Natalia is earthy, confiding, at times romantic. The accent sounds very credible. She is especially effective at drawing the audience in as she cajoles them with her old country remedies. She is also good at portraying the bitter struggle in her once hopeful life in America.
William Bryson as the cabdriver, Ambimbola, also has a credible accent that booms with authority. He also has a sardonic chuckle and a face that animates a hundred different emotions. This character is a beacon of hope that depends on Bryson's charm to work.
The married couple groping to repair a badly damaged marriage are played sharply by Julie Glander and Peter Carey. Glander at first is a bundled of nerves as Helen, grieving and blaming for too long. Gradually she learns how to channel her grief and Glander handles the transition beautifully. Carey's Reed is a difficult character hiding a secret and holding down his own grief until it boils over. Carey's rich voice gives special weight to Reed's attempts to evade and then accept his responsibilities.
Mary Dilworth plays the foul mouthed young prostitute, Rozie, with a perfect combination of childlike vulnerability and defiant brass. Dilworth snaps off a torrent of vulgarity while retaining that hint of the young girl she once was.
Michael Lopetrone rounds out the cast as Dan, Don and David. He makes each a little different. His stuttering Dan is never played for laughs or sympathy.
This is a strong beginning for a new company that might have played it safe the first time out. It will be interesting to see where they go from here.
Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.
The Electric Baby continues through Sunday, February 21 at the Interfaith Center for Spiritual Growth, 704 Airport Blvd, Ann Arbor, MI 48108. For tickets, visit kickshawtheatre.org or call Brown Paper Tickets at 1-800-838-3006.
Oscar and Felix are back.
The most famous stage bromance, The Odd Couple, is as hilarious as ever at Chelsea's Purple Rose Theatre, where the jokes just keep coming but the play's underlying humanity rises to the top.
Neil Simon had a long, prolific and successful career, but The Odd Couple is probably his most enduring and most produced work. Following its box office success on Broadway and as a hit movie, it is produced regularly across the country and has even inspired a female version.
The Purple Rose makes their production special with an excellent cast in top form, hitting each zinger with perfect timing, while finding the play's heartfelt take on what it's like to be lonely in a big city.
The neat-freak, fuss budget Felix Ungar has been given the boot by his wife and his poker-playing buddy Oscar Madison, an uber masculine slob, reluctantly offers him temporary residence in his Manhattan apartment. The apartment has been too big and too empty since Oscar's divorce.
At the heart of this story are two men of opposite personalities who find a way to complement each other. Guy Sanville is the gruff, slovenly Oscar but with a look in his eyes that suggests a sensitivity befitting one of New York's top sports writers. He's funny in a sly, deadpan way. David Montee is a sweet-natured Felix, the slightly prissy man who enjoys cooking and can't stand a mess. Montee doesn't overdo the effeminate qualities as some actors would and instead emphasizes Felix's gentleness along with his irritating, but funny, perfectionism.
Lauren Mounsey makes her professional directing debut and does a fine job of keeping the mood droll and funny but also low key. The jokes are there and the audience laughs but they come out of real conversations. All of her actors are in sync which keeps things moving along hilariously.
The poker gang played by David Bendena, Jim Porterfield, Chris Lutkin and Tom Whalen kibbutz and razz each other with easy rapport. Porterfield is especially funny as the excitable cop Murray, whose agitation rises to a boil of nervous energy.
Oscar and Felix, of course, find female companionship in the form of the ever lovable Pigeon sisters, Gwendolyn (Michelle Mountain) and Cecily (Rhiannon Ragland). They twitter and fidget about as their surname suggests and all in sparklingly twitty English accents. Their scene with Felix is both funny and endearing.
The intimate Purple Rose setting is perfect for The Odd Couple, drawing the audience into Oscar's Manhattan apartment. Set designer Bartley H. Bauer does a good job of presenting a well-appointed apartment that has somewhat gone to seed under Oscar's disregard.
These are characters we all know so well from stage, movie and a hit TV series, but the Purple Rose gives them bright new life.
Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.
The Odd Couple continues through March 26 at the theater, 137 Park Street in Chelsea. Tickets range in price from $19 to $43 with discounts for students, seniors and groups. For more information or to make reservations, call the theater box office at (734) 433-7673 or go online to http://www.purplerosetheatre.org.
On Sunday, January 17th, the Michigan Theater showed an encore screening of the National Theatre Live’s production of Hamlet to a sold-out theater. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, this production entirely reimagines the classic play and brings it into focus with a captivating clarity. It’s evident from the moment Hamlet enters the wedding celebration between his mother and his uncle that this is a dark play. The set is characterized by indigo hues and shadows, so that Elsinore, the Danish royal castle, appears both splendid and on the verge of decay.
Cumberbatch gives an excellent performance, delivering his lines with a convincing ease. This production presented Hamlet as more than a vengeful, petty step-son. Cumberbatch infuses Hamlet with purpose and emotional depth. His performance is anchored in the grief Hamlet feels over the death of his father, making Hamlet’s erratic behavior throughout the play more understandable.
War is constantly on the edges of the action; several scenes take place in a command room, antique swords and military paintings decorate the castle, and the second act includes scenes on a battlefield. Yet that constant threat is entirely overshadowed by domestic drama. Polonius and Claudius are only too willing to meddle in the lives of their children, taking time off from political matters to contrive meetings between Hamlet and Ophelia which are then watched from behind closed doors. In a way, it seems like the entire royal family is consumed, one way or another, by madness.
There are so many elements of this production that deserve praise. An inspired set design, created by Es Devlin, resulted in a broadcast that was almost like watching a typical movie. The only difference was that occasionally people would run onstage to shuffle things around in anticipation of upcoming scenes. The enclosed nature of the set, which was built at an angle to the front of the stage, almost seemed like it was designed with the camera in mind. Because the camera never captured any offstage action, it was easy to forget that you were watching a play. The downside of this cinematic quality is that the main room of Elsinore became a little claustrophobic over time, but the feeling dovetailed nicely with the themes explored by the production.
The second half of the play was characterized by low lighting, with spotlights targeting specific areas of the stage. During the final acts of the play, the entirety of the set is covered in piles of black debris and broken furniture, adding an unsettling element of discord to the Elsinore scenes. It seems as though a darkness or illness has burst out of the characters and been projected onto the rooms through which they move. The whole stage never seems to be visible, and that darkness overshadows the actions of the final scenes. We’ve reached the end of the play, and the end of almost every character onstage as the play culminates in a destructive whirlwind of a finale.
While I suspect that Cumberbatch’s popularity attracted many people to this broadcast, I got the impression that many of the people who saw the play with me enjoyed their overall experience. I know that I appreciated the chance to see a first-rate production at an affordable price. The filmed version of the play probably wasn’t quite as good as being there—I think you lose a bit of the interplay in energy between the audience and the actors—but I’d say this definitely satisfies as the next best thing. I would definitely recommend future versions of the live broadcasts for those of us who can’t jet off to London in time for the next big production.
Audrey Huggett is a Public Library Associate at the Ann Arbor District Library and knows a hawk from a handsaw.
On a frigid, January night in Ann Arbor, Kaki King warmed up The Ark with her unique brand of guitar theater. She currently tours with a projection guitar—images from a screen behind her mesh and mingle with similar moving images on her axe. Here is an artist who has embraced the visual age and incorporated our insatiable fixation with ocular stimulation into her performance.
Kaki King’s guitar work is singular. While stylistically divergent and favoring an acoustic, she is a virtuoso in the vein of Pat Metheny or perhaps Jaco Pastorius (who worked a bass, but you get the point). She finger-picks her instrument with artistry and technical precision—if she misses a note, it sounds intentional. Her textures range from experimental jazz to avant-garde folk to hip-hop. Dave Grohl has sung her praises.
King opened with some somber noise numbers—an inquisitive start to her performance-art narrative—then gradually intertwined musical sleight-of-hand with carefully selected moving pictures. She followed with some incredible noodling skills (almost unfair to use jam-band terminology, but words fail) with just a touch of funk and percussion. The performance crescendoed with a visual, captioned story about her ivory-colored guitar over a mellow hip-hop beat. The vignette also served as personal backstory for a musician who has clearly fought to assert her eclectic nature.
Her latest album, The Neck Is A Bridge To The Body, released in 2015 on the Short Stuff label, is her eighth full-length album, and showcases an artist who is ever-evolving and ever-evading the status quo. Her earlier work was a bit more straight-ahead; she has preferred more uncharted corners of the musical universe since her first two albums (Everybody Loves You, Velour, 2003 and Legs To Make Us Longer, Red Ink, 2004).
While originally from Atlanta, King espouses a New Yorker’s sensibility. She has a song entitled “Carmine Street” (off her debut album) and the accompanying visuals for one song on the night were clearly of NYC mise en scene (including a sign for Carmine Street, which lies just north of Houston in Greenwich Village).
Her insistence on free-flowing jazz and artistic reverie can be infuriating, even inaccessible, but her mastery of her craft must be appreciated. The house was certainly entranced and intrigued and stuck around for her annotations afterwards. King rarely features vocals (when included, they are often from guest artists), so it almost seemed like breaking the fourth wall when she spoke to the audience after her set. Kaki King offered an unpredictable art installation alongside her music—her work and live performance are equally compelling.
M.F. DiBella contributes to Current Magazine and Found Magazine, and blogs at 1lessblog.com
Working at the intersection of art and technology, Petoskey-based artist Robert deJonge crafts digitally-manipulated photography designed to sharpen his viewer’s view of the world around us. The understated embellishment isn’t so much modified landscape photography as it is an attempt to create a sort of restrained hyperrealism.
A particularly nuanced miniaturist, deJonge’s keenly realized photographs make us see the world as we would like to see it. And as such, his exhibit for the University of Michigan Health System’s Gifts of Art, A Walk Along the Shore, is a technological homage to such photographic landscape greats as Ansel Adams and Michigan’s own master landscape photographer, Howard Bond.
Yet unlike Adams or Bond—both of whom grapple with nature as it presents itself through their photographic technology—deJonge goes the additional step of attenuating our perception of the external world through digital means. So while Adams and Bond found ways of sharpening our perception of the natural world from within their photographic frame, deJonge chooses instead to selectively modify his landscapes with minute attention that heightens the appearance of his world.
In an earlier era, these modifications would have been color-tinted by hand. And this touch-up, so to speak, created drama through the selective addition of pigments, thereby adding one layer of articulation upon the initial photographic base. But by utilizing digital modification, deJonge instead imperceptibly shifts the emotional tension of his composition from outside to inside the frame. The manipulation of the materials therefore differs from one sort of art to another, even if the intent itself remains roughly the same.
In his Gift of Art gallery statement, deJonge explains this in more detail:
Art is worship. Using a camera and computer, I try to build images that express a spirit of wonder and playfulness.
I also enjoy drawing from the deep well of art history. I’m inspired by the magical world of Paul Klee; the lyrical world of (Marc) Chagall; and the natural connections of the (Canadian) Group of Seven (also known as the 1920s Algonquin School).
As an artist, I embrace the entire gamut of possibilities within the digital imaging world. When I capture images with my camera, I create a mental list of what the images can become through the manipulation of computer processing.
Capturing images is like collecting found objects to create an assemblage. Individual frames in the camera will most likely be combined with other frames to ‘build’ a new image. It’s exciting, it’s challenging, and it’s fun to have a digital palette to work with.
Fun is certainly the word. His signature photograph, amongst the dozen pieces that make up A Walk Along the Shore, is a memorable artwork entitled “Lights and Love.” This oversized horizontal masterpiece is ostensibly a visage of a north-looking Michigan aurora borealis. Yet where these broad bands of light that have a magnetic and electrical source are intrinsically dramatic, deJonge uses them as a mere platform for his art.
The photo features two broad strips of yellow light straddling a distant inlet at night with bookend stripes of attenuated pink bands. But while these lights alone would dominate the composition, deJonge paints mitigated shafts of green grass whose vertical placement creates an internal tension in the photograph—essentially a curvilinear belt of primary pigments braced by a horizontal secondary plume.
What’s left is a neutral-enough shoreline and darkened sky. And this shift of emphasis in turn creates a new dimension in art that doesn’t rely on the modernist objective mingling of artforms. Rather, deJonge’s union of photographic composition to the digital domain creates an expanded palette whose modification is quite nearly infinite.
The wonder of “Lights and Love” is not that the photograph has been digitally enhanced—after all, this is effectively true of virtually every professional image we now see in print or online. Rather, deJonge’s restricted discipline in creating his digitally enhanced art creates modifications that will only be noticed with the closest inspection. And, for most of us, that’s enough to satisfy both the eye and the mind.
John Carlos Cantú has written extensively on our community's visual arts in a number of different periodicals.
“A Walk Along the Shore: Digital Imaging” will run through March 13 at the University of Michigan Health System (Main Corridor, Floor 2, Gifts of Art Gallery - 1500 E. Medical Center Dr). Gallery hours are 8 am to 8 pm, daily. For information, call 734-936-ARTS.
Last Saturday, the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra celebrated Mozart’s birthday in style, with a performance of The Abduction from the Seraglio at the Michigan Theater. Opera is all about spectacle—elaborate sets, a cast of thousands—but the A2SO made a deliberate decision to highlight Mozart’s excellent music, which underpins the story. The A2SO brought in incredibly talented lead vocalists to round out the presentation of the opera, but decided to present a semi-staged version of the piece. The overall effect was that this was a performance for music lovers, with an emphasis on the songs within the opera, rather than the drama of the story.
The Abduction from the Seraglio is somewhere between a tragedy and a comedy. It tells the story of a pair of lovers, Belmonte and Constanze, and their servants, Pedrillo and Blondchen. The opera opens after Constanze and Blondchen have been kidnapped and taken to the titular seraglio (which turns out to be a harem) of Pasha Selim, Sultan of Turkey. The Pasha has fallen in love with Constanze, who resists his advances and remains true to Belmonte. Blondchen, meanwhile, has attracted the attention of Osmin, who guards the seraglio. The opera centers on the trials of the lovers as they try to find a way to escape the seraglio. There is a lot of singing about the pain of being separated from a lover and how painful love can be. Our heroes are ultimately released by a suddenly benevolent Pasha, who is moved by the strength of the love between Constanze and Belmonte.
A narrator verbally bridged the action between each song, providing background information and a quick summary of the plot. It was a clever device that allowed the focus to remain on the music of the opera, and, perhaps more importantly, it was an entry point for opera newbies. Those not previously familiar with The Abduction from the Seraglio might have had a difficult time following the action and emotion through lines of the opera, particularly since it was performed in German. Between the narrator and the lyrics projected on a small screen above the orchestra, there was no need to have memorized the entirety of the opera beforehand.
The real standout stars of the opera, among the vocalists, were the female performers Jeanette Vecchione and Suzanne Rigden. Vecchione played the part of Constanze with a wonderful gravity. Vecchione was also remarkable in her ability to keep pace with the full orchestra immediately behind her. There were moments, particularly in fire and brimstone songs, where the vocalists could get a little drowned out by the full orchestra directly behind them. This was not so with Vecchione, a testament to her skill as a vocalist. Rigden brought a wonderful lightness and humor to the stage, and was a real joy to watch. All of the vocalists deserve mention for excellent performances.
I haven’t said much about the orchestra itself, and that’s because the performance was essentially flawless. The orchestra blended into the background, supporting the vocalists’ performances, which is what you want in this sort of setting. It was interesting to get a sense of the music through the movement of the bows on the stringed instruments, however it was impossible to resist the action of the story communicated through the vocalists on stage.
The close quarters of the semi-staging helped to underscore the natural humor written into The Abduction from the Seraglio. Pushing all of the vocalists into close quarters helped up some of the dramatic tension. The downside was that the actors didn’t always have much to do, but this performance was always focused on the music of the opera. The performance was a joy to watch, and proved to be an accessible entry point into the world of opera.
Audrey Huggett is a Public Library Associate at the Ann Arbor District Library and has never seen an opera before.
The Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra's next Main Stage event will be Harp Magic on March 12 at the Michigan Theater.
If you pay any attention to local music, you know the Michigan scene is rich with diversity and talent. But as the Ann Arbor Art Center’s new show GIG: The Art of Michigan Music points out, there’s also a wealth of outstanding visual art inspired by local music. Visual art–whether an album cover, a concert photograph, a gig poster, or a T-shirt design–has a mighty influence on the way we interact with a band. Often it’s a deciding factor in whether we pick up that album or check out that show in the first place. But it’s rare that we really think about, let alone actively pay tribute to, the folks who made that art. With about 150 works by 20 different local artists, GIG at least gets a good start on giving those individuals a well-deserved tip of the hat.
The show is cleverly laid out in that it groups works not by artist but by theme, subject matter, and color scheme. There are few enough artists in GIG that each could easily be segregated into their own little stretch of wall. But it’s more interesting to take in a wall of Alice Cooper- or Kid Rock-related art, more interesting to explore a section of comic book-inspired illustrations for bands. There’s a pleasant surprise in realizing a group of works are related not necessarily by their creators, but by aesthetic qualities–sometimes different takes on the same subject material.
Within those varied groupings, certain artists consistently stand out. Ann Arbor photographer Doug Coombe has possibly shot more local bands over the past couple of decades than any other photog in town. His works in GIG repeatedly distinguish themselves not only for the diversity of bands Coombe has photographed, but the incredible eye he has for capturing them in striking moments and settings. Feast your eyes on his gorgeous black-and-white shot of Flint R&B artist Tunde Olaniran and one of his backup dancers, both bending backwards toward each other in an ecstatic dance movement. Or marvel at Coombe’s shot of a very, very young White Stripes playing the Metro Times Blowout at Paycheck’s Lounge in 1999. (Jack White is clad in a puka-shell necklace that the dapperly-dressed rocker likely wouldn’t be caught dead in these days.) Coombe’s posed shots are great as well. See his shot of Ann Arbor-bred party rocker Andrew W.K. playfully stepping out of the shower at his childhood home, or Ann Arbor soul singer Mayer Hawthorne standing almost bashfully in front of Hitsville, U.S.A., in his first promo photos (Hawthorne’s suits and haircuts have gotten notably better since then). Coombe has chronicled the scene like no other, and done it in gorgeous style.
Another standout photographer in the show is Lansing’s Jena McShane. McShane has an outstanding command of color and negative space, both of which are on particular display in her photos of the Michigan Pink Floyd tribute band Echoes of Pink Floyd. McShane shoots Echoes saxophonist Chad Bement as a relatively small figure at the bottom of one composition, with a triangle of white fog and spotlight setting him majestically apart from the surrounding blackness. Or see one of McShane’s multiple photos of Alice Cooper, with the singer set strikingly apart from blue-green light in an almost magenta jacket as he wails into a microphone at the right edge of the frame. McShane has an incredible eye for the dramatic and it’s hard to avoid gravitating towards her shots.
In addition to these fine photogs, many of GIG’s artists do their work primarily from behind a drawing table or computer screen. Chief among these is Ann Arbor artist Jeremy Wheeler, who blends ‘60s psychedelic aesthetics, an ‘80s B-movie obsession, and the dynamic style of classic comic books into an eye-popping style all his own. Check out Wheeler’s pen-and-ink illustration for a poster promoting “a celebration of life” following the death of Gary Grimshaw (a Detroit music poster legend in his own right). Text describing the lineup undulates in stately black-and-white waves below a rendering of Grimshaw’s likeness. Or see the original pen-and-ink drawings and digitally colored finals for Wheeler’s comic strip describing his experience at the Stooges’ 2011 show at the Michigan Theater honoring their late guitarist Ron Asheton. Wheeler’s story is humorous, touching and brimming with energy, a truly unique tribute to Asheton, the Stooges, and the local scene done purely for the love of the art.
Coombe, McShane, and Wheeler are just three highlights out of an exhibition packed with talent. Tony Fero and Robert “Nix” Nixon both provide some truly striking posters and album art, with B-movie and comic-book influences that echo Wheeler’s. Show curator Chuck Marshall presents several dynamic photos printed on canvas (make sure you seek out the show’s Easter egg: two boards full of Marshall’s lovely snapshots of a variety of local acts, tucked right around the corner from the main wall that introduces the show). Marshall noted that GIG is “just scratching the surface” as far as representing Michigan music-related visual art. And that’s the incredible thing about the rich variety of works in GIG: they comprise only a tiny sliver of a wild artistic world. It’s well worth taking a look at GIG in the setting of the Art Center, but the show is also likely to open attendees’ eyes a little more to the riotous never-ending art show taking place on telephone poles, venue walls, merch tables, and record store counters all over metro Detroit.
Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer whose work appears regularly in the Detroit News, the Ann Arbor Observer, and other local publications. He can be heard most Friday mornings at 8:40 am on the Martin Bandyke morning program on Ann Arbor's 107one.
"GIG: The Art of Michigan Music" will run through January 30, 2016, at the Ann Arbor Art Center, 117 W. Liberty St., Ann Arbor, MI. 48104.
I’ve lived in Arbor for three and a half years now, and for someone who calls himself a “small music” fan, I haven’t gotten out often enough to visit all the great venues we have in and around town. The Green Wood Coffee House has been on my must-go list for some time now, and Friday night I walked in. Located at the United Methodist Church on Green Road, it’s an Ann Arbor institution of great live folk, roots, and Americana music, and the performance by the Juggernaut Jug Band did nothing but burnish that reputation.
I’d never heard of “JJB” or their music before last night, though I confess to being a lapsed practitioner of the washtub bass (it was a high school thing). There was no washtub there, but JJB frontman Stu “Roscoe P. Goose” Helm had at his disposal more than a dozen jug band instruments, most of them clamped to a red 4-foot step ladder. The star of the rhythm assortment was Roscoe’s ancient-looking crockery jug – a gallon-sized model – equipped with a 21st century wireless mic. This video provides a nice intro to JJB.
Louisville, Kentucky is considered the birthplace of jug band music: a goulash of Dixieland, honky-tonk, blues, jazz, minstrel, and swing that first bubbled up in the late 1800s. JJB’s primary calling is to preserve the jug band tradition and to expand the envelope of this sub-genre with modern musical infusions. Channeling past jug band ghosts like the Dixieland Jug Blowers, Whistler’s Jug Band, the Mud Gutters, and Ballad Chefs, JJB covers the best of traditional jug music, complete with washboard, cowbells, tin cans and nose flute.
But wait… there’s more! In addition to those original sounds, JJB samples modern rock in a jug band format that has the audience’s senses and sensibilities reeling – in a good way. Consider "Pinball Wizard"… played to the tune of "Folsom Prison Blues". Or a Led Zeppelin medley of "Heartbreaker", "Kashmir", and "Stairway to Heaven". These guys know how to turn a genre on its head, whether it’s theirs or any other. If you’ve not heard a jug band cover of "People Are Strange" by Jim Morrison and The Doors, you must seek this out immediately.
Before you write off JJB as a bells-and-whistles novelty group, you need to know that these guys are accomplished and talented multi-instrumentalists. Roscoe Goose surprised me by setting aside his washboard thimbles for a song and pulling out a muted silver trumpet in mid-set. Greg “Frankie” Lentz displayed his fretboard skills on an electrified Fender dreadnaught. Pat “Slim Chance” Lentz (Greg’s brother) strummed and picked a masterful electric jazz guitar of his own making – and alternated with a Dixieland banjo, while the newest member of the group, James “Jug Band Jimmy” Brown anchored the group with his stand-up bass. Members of the band have changed since its inception in the early 1960s, but the tradition, original sound, and corny jokes carry on. Roscoe Goose has been raking the washboard for JJB for more than 50 years.
What I absolutely did not expect from this group was the level of vocal skill and harmony-making reminiscent of good barbershop groups. Roscoe possesses a sweetly natural lead voice, and ranges easily down to the bass notes required for the jug. All of JJB’s members join in often for the choruses, and the lead singing role is occasionally thrown to “Slim”.
Catch Juggernaut Jug Band on their next trip through town (they promised), since no studio recording quite captures the look on Roscoe P. Goose’s face when he’s playing the nose flute on "Stairway to Heaven". Visit this Spotify link to sample their stuff. If you like it, BUY their music at the Juggernaut website. And thank you, Juggernaut Jug Band… for keeping musical history alive… and kicking!
Don Alles is a marketing consultant, journalist, house concert host, and musical wannabee living in and loving his recently adopted home, Ann Arbor.
The film is adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt (later re-published under the title Carol) about a romance between two women in 1950s New York. The book details a love affair between the young and lonely Therese, and Carol, a married woman facing divorce. Therese and Carol meet in a department store, quickly become attached to each other, and then travel cross-country to escape Carol’s familial stresses. Their situation grows increasingly complicated (no spoilers here, I promise, but there are moments of true surprise and devastation). In the end, love prevails.
I found the film to be stirring, evocative, and full of emotions that are all-at-once restrained and dynamic. Leading actresses Cate Blanchett (Carol) and Rooney Mara (Therese) demonstrate real ability, as they both perform their roles with careful and controlled intensity. The dialogue is sparse, so each spoken word carries weight. Therese and Carol often meet in public places, such as city cafés and sleepy small-town diners, where strangers don’t suspect the real intimacy of their relationship. As they speak guardedly, their true feelings towards each other are only revealed through their facial expressions. The film provides subjective shots of both women, close-up shots that frame their faces and highlight the blazing intensity in their eyes. This is how the audience too learns how these women feel about each other.
Some of the subjective close-ups reveal easily legible emotions. And as a viewer, it is satisfying to witness them so closely. Many of the shots, however, are composed in ways that disrupt the intelligibility of the women’s faces. Carol and Therese are often framed through windows. The effect is beautiful. Reflections become the foreground of the image, and their facial expressions recede. These images are richly layered, revealing colors and textures that provide substantive depth.
In an interview with Variety, the film’s cinematographer Edward Lachman said, “In a film there’s kind of a silence and moments of suspension. And this layering of images becomes kind of a subtext for their emotional states. They’re encapsulated in these cars where we see them from the outside and the reflection on the cars are what’s – let’ s say what the forces are outside of them.”
The layering complicates the images, making them more difficult to decipher. I appreciated these moments most! My eyes searched the images, looking to read facial expressions, but often paused to admire the grainy textures and washes of color.
The lush cinematography carries the film’s narrative, which moves slowly. Shot on Super-16mm film, with a muted color palette of greens, reds, and brown, the film evokes a period of time with visual accuracy, but also with the feeling of a dream. I recommend this film for those who appreciate classic love stories and period dramas. Carol offers stirring emotional experience – expect to see it nominated for several awards in the upcoming award season!
Elizabeth Wodzinski is a Desk Clerk at the Ann Arbor District Library and she would love to try on Cate Blanchett’s hats.
Carol is currently screening locally at the Michigan Theater.