Great Performances

Last week, a few hours before placing my fingers on my computer’s keypad, I toyed with the idea of writing in depth about the world’s never-ending cavalcade of horrors: the man-made and also the ones bestowed by Mother Nature. Among those of recent vintage, Russia’s pummeling of Ukraine for the past 13 months is the first category’s undisputed leader. Earthquakes in Turkey and Syria, which killed nearly 60,000 people earlier this year, top the second.

But, seeing that I ain’t anyone’s go-to guy for news analysis or for astute political and philosophical commentary, I decided to ditch said idea and head instead in a direction I’m more in tune with. The next however-many hundreds of words, therefore, are devoted to artistic performances that recently knocked me off my aged, wrinkly feet.

First up are the acting jobs — as profound as any you could hope to see — turned in by Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain in George & Tammy, a mini-series available on various platforms, including Showtime. The show tells the intertwined tales of George Jones and Tammy Wynette, country music stars long deceased, who loved one another to the end, despite divorcing in 1975 after six years of marriage (Jones passed in 2013, Wynette in 1998.) More than anything else, Jones’ heavy drinking caused the union to crumble. He adored Wynette but, a troubled soul, was prone to violent outbursts. Conversely, Wynette, blessed with inherent sweetness, radiated calm and light in the face of a host of personal difficulties.

My wife Sandy and I gobbled up George & Tammy last month. It got to us, really moved us. It’s not perfect, though. A few too many clichéd scenes see to that. However, Shannon and Chastain are wonders to behold, and make production deficiencies almost irrelevant. Bringing their characters to life so believably, so naturally, they elevate each episode’s script to levels the writers likely never envisioned. And, by the way, Shannon and Chastain sing damn well too. I’ll now clearly state what I’ve been implying: George & Tammy is worth your time, even if you’re not a country music fan. I highly recommend it.

Anyone who is into paintings, graphics and sculptures probably is familiar with The Barnes Foundation, a museum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA. Its collection, amassed over several decades by the late Albert Barnes, a wealthy physician, chemist and businessman who left this mortal coil in 1951, is nothing short of astonishing. The Barnes is drenched with works by Renoir, Cézanne, Soutine, Utrillo, Matisse and Van Gogh, to name but a few of the mid-1800s-to-mid-1900s artists the museum specializes in. It also showcases African masks and sculptures, ancient Greek sculptures, plus a ton of other creations. What a place!

Well, being someone who definitely is into the artforms listed above and who lives not terribly far from Philadelphia, I drop by the Barnes every few years (visiting more often than that would dampen my ability to view the collection with fresh eyes). One particular array of paintings has caught my attention on each of my last few visits, including the one I paid three weeks ago. Extending from one wall to the next, it presents four oils, three of them by Paul Cézanne and one by Vincent van Gogh. Those gentlemen, along with Claude Monet, are my favorite artists.

Cézanne and Van Gogh had the gift of getting to the heart of things, each from a different set of angles. The four oils in question — beautiful performances, if you will — are proof of this. I feel life forces simmering beneath Cézanne’s understated pallet of blues, grays, browns and greens. Van Gogh, of course, is more obviously expressive. He can’t contain his emotions.  It’s easy to spend more than a few moments gazing at his still life’s flowers and leaves, which seem ready to leap not only out of their container but off the canvas too. He painted it in 1888, one year before his death. Van Gogh, who had minimal commercial success during his life, would have been ecstatic, I’m sure, to know that in time his works would captivate people, and that he was destined to become a legend.

The final performance I’ll present is by Sarah Shook & The Disarmers, an American band that can rock like nobody’s business. Their recording Talkin’ To Myself came out a year and a half ago. It blew me away when I first heard it last year, and I dialed it up again the day before I began writing this story because I was in need of perfect, ass-kicking rock and roll. Lyrically this song doesn’t paint a happy picture but, man, sonically it’s amazing. Ferocious guitar licks and pounding drums that show no mercy surround Shook’s controlled-yet-sneering vocals. Press the Play button below if you’re ready to be jolted.

“Upward” Was The Theme Of The Day

My wife Sandy and I spent seven fun-filled hours on a recent Friday in Philadelphia’s Art Museum neighborhood. The first two of those hours we strolled around the grounds of the Philadelphia Museum Of Art and its surrounding trails and parks. The skies were sunny, the humidity pretty low and the temperature not too unkindly hot. There was no getting away from the sun’s power though, and we sweated mightily, a small price to pay for helping the body build up Vitamin D reserves.

During the seven hours we found a fascinating park that was new to us, looked at lots of art within and without the museum, took in a Cuban music concert (“Havana Night”) at the museum and finished with a tasty dinner at a nearby restaurant, Rembrandt’s. But I’ve decided to skip many of the details about all of that. Instead I’m going to concentrate on a theme that, to my impressionable mind, seemed to unite a portion of what we saw. There’s a good chance that I’m stretching reality to find a connection, but what the hay, that wouldn’t be my first time. Besides, reality is flexible. The theme involves optimism, more specifically our species’ seeming desire and need to stay positive, to grow, to look upward. The notion began to bubble a bit in my sun-dappled head near the start of our Friday adventure when, poking around the museum’s outdoor sculpture garden, we were very happy to find Franz West’s colorful sculpture Lips towering before us.

Franz West's Lips in the Philadelphia Museum Of Art's sculpture garden.
Franz West’s Lips in the Philadelphia Museum Of Art’s sculpture garden.
Steps and Pyramid, two sculptures by Sol LeWitt.
Steps and Pyramid, two sculptures by Sol LeWitt.









Lips is way terrific. Three giant tendrils, (or are they giant worms?), pointing heavenward in pastel shades of blue, pink and lime. Taking a good look at the squirmy designs, I couldn’t help but think that West was putting his mind and emotions on display, that Lips represented his vision of looking on the bright side, of reaching for the stars. I wondered, what else around here might have had the same inspirations? Well, not far uphill from Lips on the sculpture garden grounds, Sandy and I found two modest and monochromatic sculptures by Sol LeWitt. They were sitting within their personal and unassuming open-walled pavilion. LeWitt named the larger piece Pyramid and the smaller one Steps. Pyramid and Steps were fashioned in 2010, two years before Lips, and are made of concrete blocks. Tiny compared to Lips, they nevertheless are objects that to me suggested that we keep our minds open and on the ascending path. Pyramids point skyward, duh. And although stairs go down as well as up, LeWitt I’m sure placed Steps next to his pyramid to reinforce the “up” reference.

So, I appeared to be on a roll. What else might I fit into my Upward container? One reason that Sandy and I had decamped at the museum area was to check out some of the newish stretches of the Schuylkill River Trail, a river-bounded pathway for pedestrians and cyclists that planners hope one day will extend 140 miles from the bottom of Philadelphia to Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania. We walked a short distance southward on the River Trail and lo and behold came to a park we never knew about. It’s a haven that Philadelphia created for skateboarders. Paine’s Park is its name, probably because pain and skateboarding go hand in hand. Anyway, 30 or so guys and gals in their teens and 20s were gliding around the park, flipping off contoured walls and doing whatever else it is that skateboarders do. I was amazed by the park’s existence. Skateboarders had once made their home in Love Park, near Philadelphia’s City Hall, and garnered the wrath of city officials and ordinary folk in the process. Rather than continuing to scare the daylights out of tourists and office workers trying to lunch and lounge in Love Park, skateboarders needed their own officially-sanctioned facility. Now they have one. Paine’s Park opened two years ago.

Sign for Steps and Pyramid IMG_0816

Jonathan Monk's two sturdy sculptures, Steps and Pyramid, in Paine's Park.
Jonathan Monk’s two sturdy sculptures, Steps and Pyramid, in Paine’s Park.








But did my eyes deceive me? There in Paine’s were two creations that looked suspiciously like Sol LeWitt’s Steps and Pyramid. Sure enough, they were near-replicas. Their artist, Jonathan Monk, liked LeWitt’s sculpture garden pieces so much that he paid homage by creating cousins. And he even gave them the same names. But whereas do-not-touch signs are planted near LeWitt’s pieces, the Monk sculptures, fashioned from really tough materials, are meant to take whatever abuse skateboarders can dish out. Sandy and I didn’t see any of the gliders take on the challenge of Steps’ and Pyramid’s narrowly and sharply angled spaces, but I have it on good authority that it happens regularly. Monk’s works not only continue LeWitt’s figurative idea of staying on the upside, they provide the surfaces to allow someone actually to soar.

Skyscrapers in Center City Philadelphia.
Skyscrapers in Center City Philadelphia.
The Philadelphia Zoo's ZooBalloon.
The Philadelphia Zoo’s ZooBalloon.
Marquis de Lafayette.
Marquis de Lafayette.

Yes, I smugly said to myself, there really is something to this idea I have. I looked around. In one direction were skyscrapers in Center City Philadelphia, testaments to man’s hopefulness. And in another was the Philadelphia Zoo’s gigantic and somewhat iconic ZooBalloon. Its daily flights, weather permitting, allow zoo visitors to come close to getting their heads near the clouds. And as Sandy and I made our way back to the museum grounds we passed Raoul Josset’s massive bronze statue of Marquis de Lafayette, his cape-enshrouded right arm pointing to the heavens. “Onwards and upwards, citizens,” the Marquis seemed to be saying.

The two tall works are Brancusi's Bird sculptures.
The two tall works are Brancusi’s Bird sculptures.

Sandy and I entered the museum. She headed toward a photography exhibition. I told her I’d meet her there in a bit after I continued my search for further examples to bolster my theme of the day. The museum holds a superb collection of sculptures by the great modernist Constantin Brancusi, and has devoted an entire room to his works. In it I stood before two related sculptures, Bird In Space and Bird In Space (Yellow Bird), the former made from bronze, the latter from marble. Both are sleek and very beautiful. Brancusi must have felt his spirit soaring as he designed and shaped them in the early 1920s, and post-creation too. Going up!

Paul Cezanne's The Large Bathers.
Paul Cezanne’s The Large Bathers.

I was tiring. One more stop, and then my quest to try and make a point would end. On many levels, Paul Cézanne is hard to beat. For maybe the 100th time I let wash over me one of his many masterworks, The Large Bathers. It was one of his final paintings, completed shortly before his passing in 1906.  This time I focused on the trees providing cover for the tribe of naked folks at ground level. The upper reaches of the trees are not shown, by design. I could imagine the trees going on almost forever. I believe that in them Cézanne symbolically infused man’s basic nature to ascend and achieve. To move upward.

(All photos by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on any photo, a larger image will open)

(If you enjoyed this article, then please consider sharing it. Thanks.)