Saturday, April 10, 2010

MINDS WIDE OPEN: Virginia Celebrates Women in the Arts 2010

Southeastern Virginia (AKA: Hampton Roads, Tidewater, &/or 7 Cities) is known in the wider world for a number of things. In addition to being home to the largest Naval base on the planet, it has one of the East Coast's premiere beaches, and its natural beauty is reflected in a number of parks connected to its bodies of water, with the Great Dismal Swamp as legendary as its name implies.

Besides being home to the first European settlers (we pride ourselves in being "America's First Region") Hampton Roads is the first place to go for the fine arts in the Commonwealth of Virginia. NOVA's (Northern Virginia) proximity to DC ensures its silver medal status, and other cities like Richmond, Charlottesville, and Roanoke have much to offer their citizens and guests, but Tidewater is much more than beautiful bodies of water, aircraft carriers, fighter jets and colonial history.

Proving that point where the arts are concerned, the statewide celebration of Women in the Arts, MINDS WIDE OPEN, kicked off in earnest right here.

The Chorale--ahead of the curve and under the radar--presented one of the first programs in the series, called EARS WIDE OPEN: Celebrating Women in Music (I wrote about that program in February and March, see "Ears Wide Open," "New Works" and "The Axe to Pick..." below).

Our flagship museum--and one of the finest regional museums anywhere--the Chrysler, officially kicked off the initiative with their exceptional special exhibition "Women of the Chrysler: A 400 Year Celebration of the Arts" (visit the museum--it's free--and check them out online: You can view a slideshow of the art, take a virtual tour, and contribute to their blog).

There is much to savor in this show (which would be noteworthy without the statewide focus on the topic). Akin's and Ludwig's panorama of head shots, The Women Series, is the centerpiece of the exhibition. Some 200 prints of all kinds of women--movie stars, opera singers, activists, artists and more--are hung by the curators in an arrangement original to the exhibition.

Other highlights for me were the rooms flanking the centerpiece. The impressionist-inspired works leading to it were full of surprises--I was particularly drawn to the canvases of Susan Watkins. Equally engaging were the abstract expressionist paintings by Lee Krasner (whose work is as compelling as her more famous husband, Jackson Pollock) and Helen Frankenthaler (a happy new discovery for this amateur art lover).

One of the books I am currently reading is a new "manifesto" by David Shields called Reality Hunger. It is a series of aphorisms, quotes & paraphrases, and observations "about" art and life, the blurred line between them, and the increasingly blurred lines between genres (ie: "reality tv," fictitious memoirs, "documentary" film, etc, etc).

Section 230 is: "Photography: the prestige of art and the magic of reality."

This follows a paragraph where Shields cites modern photography as an important source of inspiration for contemporary fiction. He notes that after writing the introduction to a collection of photography, the writer Ann Beattie "produced a novel, Picturing Will, that contains unmistakable parallel's to Mann's life and work."

The Chrysler show features a number of arresting photographs. One of the most prominent and current is by Sally Mann, a native of Lexington (and a magnet of opprobrium for the subject of her provocative photos: her children). "Jessie and the Deer" features the unsettling still of her ballerina-clad daughter standing next to a deer carcass whose slit throat is hanging limp over the open bed of a pick-up truck. It is no surprise that so jarring and multi-layered an image would pique the imagination of a writer like Beattie.

The connections between genres have never been more porous nor ripe for exploration.

Last night, members of the Chorale joined me in sharing selections from our EARS WIDE OPEN program for the Center for Contemporary Art's exhibition devoted to MINDS WIDE OPEN ( In another example of inter-media collaboration, we offered live music in the galleries, in an interesting variation on the concept of "performance art."

The CAC's show featured two Virginia Beach artists, Renata Keep, and one of her successful young proteges, Elizabeth Huey. Renata--as she insisted on being called--is an artist whose beautiful and generous spirit shines through her works. Her paintings brought to mind what Georgia O'Keefe might have painted had she called the beach--rather than the desert--home. I was lucky enough to join her before the show opened in a private tour through the exhibit (at 88, she is wheelchair bound, but her bright eyes and face emanate vivacity). She offered one of the most gracious speeches I've heard to the 7 or 8 of us accompanying her. A native of Hungary, she eloquently praised the American spirit: the positive, resilient, "can do" attitude immigrants like her have embraced and affirmed, decade after decade.

The CAC is another one of the region's gems, and as the Chorale flies in under the radar of larger classical music organizations like the Opera and Symphony, so too does the exceptional home for contemporary art live in the shadow of its more famous "uncle," the Chrysler. The current show devoted to two women artists--both palpably connected to one another and the region, however individually divergent their styles--will make you wonder why you don't spend more time at the CAC, checking the vibrant pulse of contemporary art.

One of the Chrysler's (relatively) contemporary offerings is Barbara Morgan's pulse-racing "action" photo of Martha Graham, entitled "Letter to the World (Kick)."

After Renata Keep's speech at the CAC, I recalled one of my favorite artist-to-artist letters, from Graham to Agnes De Mille. I keep a copy of it with me whenever I travel for a gig or have an audition:

There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action. And because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.

Here's to keeping all those channels open:
Ears wide open. Eyes wide open. Minds wide open.

1 comment:

Hampton Roads said...

Great post; if you'd ever like to do some guest blogging on arts and culture in the region, give me a shout: