Kultur: Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Pop music on canvas, not-so-furry animals, and faux-”aeroplane” views of Texas — the best and worst of the fine arts scene.

Kultur has a confession to make: I’m not as aristocratic as “y’all” think I am.

I ain’t kiddin’. Every once in a cerulean (that means “blue”) moon, when I’m not deconstructing Foucault or spoken-word-poet-tossing, I steal away to the local tavern to mingle with the commoners. My slumming is fueled by my seemingly insatiable hunger for A.) stale pretzels, B.) inane conversation, and C.) that most purely American of all cultural phenomena, pop music. No lie: I spend as much money on jukeboxes as on booze.

To me, the best thing about an art form as sui generis as pop music is that it’s defiantly not my other loves. It is not classical music. It is not dance, not theater, not literature, and, most aggressively, pop music is not visual art. If, as the old malapropism goes, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture,” then what intentionally warped analogy could be used to describe painting about music?

By “painting about music,” I obviously mean “painting of musicians and/or instruments”; you can’t, y’know, “paint” sound. Like writing about music (see: HearSay), painting about music isn’t all inherently nauseating. Anyone who’s ever read Greil Marcus, Lester Bangs, or Gary Giddins knows that the words on the page can sometimes be a helluva lot more artful, illuminating, and entertaining than the music being written about. Same with the painting: What we think and feel largely depends on the quality of artist.

In his portraits of John Coltrane, fellow Weekly employee Mark Goodman doesn’t just recreate familiar photographs of the legendary sax-man. He clearly tries to approximate the spirit of the music. The velvety warm blacks and hues of midnight cerulean (see: above) he favors conjure both Coltrane’s excursions into blues conceits and the interiors of the smoky nightclubs where he wailed. Goodman’s bold, mercurial lines are also sometimes frayed and splintered around the edges, kind of like the tortured musician offstage. By bouncing and jiving all over the canvas, hot and concise bursts of bright primary colors lend depth and motion while suggesting Coltrane’s uncanny sense of tone. Dull, tinny, soft and bright, loud and blinding, faded, rusted — name the tone, and Coltrane could take a deep breath and breathe it into existence.

Another local visual artist who has a nice touch for celebrity portraiture is Jesse Sierra Hernandez. Well known for his nudes of anonymous females, Hernandez has cornered the market on star-painting in the West Seventh Street area — the walls of the Bronx Zoo, Torch, and Wreck Room all teem with his handiwork, mostly delightful, chalky, dual-tone replications of popular photos, including Nolan Ryan pounding Robin Ventura’s skull, Johnny Cash giving us the finger, and Tom Landry wracking his brain trying to figure out how to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers. (Ha!)

Art brut-ish decorative painter Dick Maw is another yokel who’s not half-bad at celebrity portraiture. His childlike and obnoxiously colored semi-abstractions of legendary jazz musicians may induce seizures but are vibrantly raucous. Familiar imagery is Maw’s stock in trade: Fine Art Impressions of the Fort Worth Area, currently hanging at the Fort Worth Community Arts Center, is a series of disturbingly bright and multi-hued representational paintings of downtown Cowtown as seen by Maw as a passenger on the T. (The transportation organization, not incidentally, is sponsoring the show.) Some of Maw’s cityscapes have a quaint pre-modern flatness that my art history teacher would slap me for admitting is enticing, but overall they’re pedestrian and don’t possess the single quality that recommends his jazz paintings — personality.

Which brings us to the problem with painting about music: Too frequently the type of artist who trades on famous people in his artwork is either a wannabe or profiteer. Since he may not have any ideas of his own, the “artist” dangles familiar imagery and household names like bait from his canvases to attract viewers, who, like most of us, are hard-wired to buy into pop culture’s powerful allure. Hardcore enthusiasts are almost bound by duty to thrown down cash for anything with their favorite celebrity’s likeness on it — as an Elvis fanatic in my painfully ignorant youth, I once forked over a couple of bucks to a schmo at a local mall kiosk for a colored-pencil drawing of the King. What the hell was I thinking?!

Enough about me. What the hell were Fort Worth Public Library Gallery curators thinking when they hung several severely undercooked portraits of famous black musicians as part of its Black History Month exhibit? The story of how African-Americans used pop music to help transcend their second-class-citizen status is no less significant today, just really old.

But I digress. My two cents is that if the estates of Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, or Ray Charles aren’t getting a cut of the celebrity portraitist’s sales, then release the lawyers! Much in the same way that musicians are legally proscribed from performing another person’s music for profit without permission, visual artists should be discouraged from taking an icon, putting a frame around his or her likeness, selling the whole deal, and keeping all of the proceeds. Elvis worked hard (and partied hard) to become Elvis — why weren’t artists painting him when he was a no-name hick truck driver?!

I know what you’re thinking: Andy Warhol. But when Warhol took the visual detritus of popular culture and placed it in the rarefied context of fine art, he authored a scathing commentary on — and, yes, exploited — the built-in hypocrisy of the art world. Profit was a fortuitous byproduct of his brilliant critique, not his inspiration. Joe Bagadonuts couldn’t just go to The Factory, purchase a Warhol, take it home, and hang it over his sofa.

Celebrity portraitists today, on the other hand, are apparently on every street corner.

Where the Wild Things Are — Here, Here’s a Map

I’m no world traveler, but I’ve been to a few places — Philadelphia, West Aliquippa, Philadelphia — and in all my exotic adventures I can honestly say I’ve never seen anything like two exhibits up now in ol’ Cowtown. They’re both fascinating, occasionally tedious, and unique.

The first show is Fort Worth-based artist Frank McCulley’s at the Fort Worth Community Arts Center. Made up of life-sized papier-mâché sculptures of animals, Wild Things comes on like a surprise greeting; y’know, like when you walk into a dark room and then all of the sudden the lights come on and a dozen people scream at you — you’re scared, perplexed, annoyed, frantic, and happy, all at the same time. (Not that lone wolf Kultur would know anything of being on the business end of a surprise party — hmmpff. I just know from hearing about them, usually second- or third-hand.)

Anyway. The scary part is the animals themselves. Even from a couple of feet away, McCulley’s life-sized polar bear looks like a real friggin’ polar bear, and, knowing that these types of killing machines actually hunt humans, you would do well to walk into the gallery and ... pause. Together, all of the “wild things” — bears, big cats, birds and larger-than-life-sized insects, farm animals, whatever — foment eerie drama, especially if, like me, you get creeped out by otherwise animated objects frozen in pure stillness. Wax sculptures of people, a wax sculpture of Keanu Reeves, Keanu Reeves, Han Solo in Return of the Jedi — they all wig me out, man!

The beauty part is twofold: The shapes and colors of the animals are spellbinding (don’t miss the huge gold-gray-white owl in the back of the room), and the amount of sweat equity manifest in the hundreds of glorious sculptural details is marvelous. If you didn’t know McCulley held a master of fine arts degree from the University of Texas and taught art at Carter-Riverside High School for 27 years, you’d mistake him for an outsider artist. Making large objects out of papier-mâché shares with the creation of most outsiderish stuff two hallmark attributes — repetitiveness and attention to detail. A lot of outsider art also involves a sometimes perverse fascination with childhood (Henry Darger’s Vivian Girls, convicted kiddie-fiddler Adolf Wölfli’s brilliantly colored musico-religious iconography), and McCulley’s creatures are fantastically whimsical. They certainly weren’t made for blue-bloods to hang over the fireplace at the ski lodge but for us plainfolk to enjoy.

And collect. McCulley’s handiwork is surprisingly reasonably priced. Wild Things runs through Monday (Feb. 27), at 1300 Gendy St., in Fort Worth. For more info, call 817-738-1938 or visit www.fwcac.com.

Right down the street, at the Amon Carter Museum, is where the other enjoyably odd exhibit is hanging. Patterns of Progress: Bird’s Eye Views of Texas is made up of more than 70 prints of artists’ renditions of the landscape here during the late 19th century. They’re essentially small, highly detailed maps, and if you visit with a group, the surreality of the viewing experience will be thrown into sharp relief: You’ll likely see people with their noses inches from the artworks, rambling on about the street Granny used to live on or where Uncle Festus was born, and actually touching the glass! (I admit: At the opening last week, I put my grimy mitts on more than a few prints — unwittingly, I swear.)

The exhibit is huge and, unless you find the relatively straightforward and slightly dexterous artwork enjoyable, I recommend breezing through and stopping only when something catches your eye. Thankfully, the museum provides magnifying glasses, and the maps of the big cities — Fort Worth, Dallas, Denton, Austin, Houston, San Antonio — are near the front of the gallery.

An interactive component is also part of the show. At www.birdseyeviews.org, you can use your mouse to draw super- tight focus on any piece you wish — the page contains every one. The best part: You can touch your computer screen all you damn well please.

Through May 28 at 3501 Camp Bowie Blvd., in Fort Worth. Call 817-738-1933 or visit www.amoncarter.org.

We Hip, We Cool (Ow — My Back!)

Who says we North Texans are behind the curve? Well, maybe we are in certain parts of the region (a’hem, Aledo, a’hem), but down at the Fort Worth Opera, we’re downright outré.

In case you’ve spent the past few weeks living in a cave or somewhere in Aledo, you’ve probably heard the news that FWO is changing formats. Instead of producing operas one by one over the fall and winter, the company will condense its entire schedule into an annual four-week festival. In true repertory style, three different productions will be presented each weekend on three successive days. The inaugural festival commences in May and will feature Falstaff, Madama Butterfly, and the new Frau Margot.

Only two small American companies employ the format, the Santa Fe Opera and the St. Louis Opera, and they both have been flourishing. The hope is that FWO can match their success.

There are several reasons for the switch: Make more efficient use of Bass Performance Hall, give the singers a day’s rest between performances, and boost tourism. (Aledo-ans are firing buckshot for joy as we speak.)

Kultur’s two cents: Formats don’t attract concert-goers. Productions do. While I’m glad to see one new work make the cut, we need more. There are only so many traditional ways to stage Madama Butterfly, and, after hearing a recording of Pavarotti in his prime as Pinkerton and Mirella Freni as Ciao-Ciao San, I’m not sure Verdi’s opera can be imbued with better singing, either.

For more info, visit www.fwopera.org.

Contact Kultur at kultur@fwweekly.com.

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