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Art Beat: Van Gogh on Jumbotron -- art or spectacle?

  • Author: Mike Dunham
  • Updated: May 31, 2016
  • Published October 8, 2015

I walked into the press preview of "Van Gogh Alive -- The Experience" on Thursday morning not quite knowing what to expect. The multimedia exhibit, which opens at the Anchorage Museum on Friday, Oct. 9, after being seen in markets like Berlin, Moscow, Istanbul and Florence, displays reproductions of the immensely popular paintings by Vincent van Gogh blown up to super-large size and accompanied by classical music in what the presenter, Grande Exhibitions, calls an immersive, "powerful and vibrant symphony of light, color and sound."

The touring exhibit -- there are several of them, actually -- has been a hit with audiences. The China Daily News reported hundreds of thousands of viewers after the show opened in Shanghai. (It's now on display in three Chinese cities.) "Goose bumps pop up on your skin," wrote Jill McIlroy on Examiner.com when the exhibit came to Arizona. Students of the Anchorage School District who attended the preview could be heard shouting, "Wow! Oh my God!" as "Starry Night" popped up on the big screen.

The show is something like a documentary you walk into. A sign at the entry on the third floor of the museum tells us to "forego all preconceived ideas of traditional museum visits."

We follow the life of the painter with a chronological sequence of paintings, letters and photographs with multiple, usually related, images shine in the different galleries. The Ken Burns effect of panning or zooming on a still image is used constantly. Paintings are cropped or chopped into triptychs. Animation is used to make van Gogh's windmills spin, boats ply through water, locomotives chug through cities, crows flap their wings and cigarette smoke rise in a wiggling plume. The screens present lots of van Gogh self-portraits, fields, flowers, peasants and landscapes. It is effectively engaging, poignant and possibly productive of vertigo.

McIlroy applauded the magnification of van Gogh's visceral brush strokes and amplification of the color due to "the sheer size of the screens and the cavernous rooms," which is true enough. And we're not likely to get an exhibit of van Gogh originals anytime soon.

And yet … where does the artist fit in this biopsy via Jumbotron? Would van Gogh have painted on this scale if he could have and worked in moving images if he could have? Maybe. The fact is, he didn't. That's the reality. But reality is not synonymous with art. Great art is simultaneously a reflection of reality and a separation from it; "Alive" is a separation from the separation.

Can exhibits of reproductions, no matter how well done, replicate the experience of seeing an original work in person? Particularly when the reproduction exaggerates or alters some aspect of the art, like its size or medium?

There's no doubt that "Alive" is impressive. Big things are often impressive. It's easy to "ooh" and "ahh" when looking up at something larger than oneself. But the oohs and ahhs generated by encountering van Gogh's relatively small paintings comes from a different part of us, the part that is enchanted, made curious, finds a personal and intimate connection with an item and its maker. Such emotions do not spring from awe or a sense of being overwhelmed.

"It's different from seeing the art in person," said Kirsten Anderson, Anchorage Museum's deputy director of curatorial affairs and programs. "We're not trying to replace the art at all, but to explore ways technology can be used to examine art." She said the intent of the show was to create "points of conversation" and I suspect it will do something along those lines. Taking the time to watch the full sequence, which runs about 30 minutes, is breathtaking as well as educational. And insofar as "Alive" creates some sort of lively connection between van Gogh and viewers, that's probably a good thing. Even an artistic thing.

But is the spectacle seen here achieved at the expense of aesthetics? And is spectacle what the modern viewer wants? The China News piece was accompanied by several photos showing visitors taking pictures of the reproductions and, it appears, themselves using the reproductions as backgrounds. Not your grandfather's museum experience -- or even mine. But perhaps this is art consumption in the age of selfies.

In that phrase "art consumer," which seems to have popped up a few years ago, we have increasingly heard the emphasis laid on the second word. The "Van Gogh Alive" show in Shanghai continues that trend; it was sponsored by Cadillac, who included the latest models on display with the exhibit.

A press release from GM quoted an unnamed reporter as saying, "I just cannot think of any luxury automotive brand that is more suitable for organizing this exhibition than Cadillac. Van Gogh was a great artist who created gorgeous paintings with his unique power of expression, and Cadillac is a brand with the most courageous style in the century-long history of the automobile."

The press release explains the connection thus: "(Van Gogh) never yielded to outmoded conventions but always tried to break with them. His personality and avant-garde creativity fully found their expression on his canvas."

Cadillacs are very fine cars. But I don't associate the brand with "avant-garde creativity." As far as I can tell, Cadillac seldom breaks with conventions, which are largely regulated nowadays, though it plays up costly improvements in existing technologies. And their cars tend to run close to perfectly.

Van Gogh innovated because he had no money and was forced to improvise. Furthermore, his kind of creativity was not the kind found in a research-and-development department but more likely connected to the fact that he probably could not have passed the psychological test to get a janitorial job at GM nowadays.

If you're going to equate van Gogh with motorized transportation, it would be the kind of one-off that some guy makes in his garage out of spare parts, is not comfortable to ride in and often doesn't work as expected. But Cadillac paid for the show and gets to write the press release.

It may be that the art of the future will depend on product placement and advertising as much as Renaissance painters depended on church commissions. I only hope the current artists do as good a job as the quattrocento guys.

Expect more. "Da Vinci Alive -- The Experience" has opened in Florence.

The Anchorage Museum show has no Cadillacs. It is somewhat shrunk down from the gigantic convention center venues where it has previously toured, Anderson said. It will be on display through Jan. 10 and is a ticketed event. General admission for Alaska residents is $17, which includes museum admission, available at anchoragemuseum.org. It's free for museum members, another good reason to have membership.

First Friday rambles

For last week's First Friday art openings we focused on downtown -- and there was plenty to see, from the Alaska Watercolor Society's juried exhibit at Aurora Fine Arts to the Anchorage Museum laying out a display of some of their recent acquisitions.

Another juried show, the Alaska Photographic Center's Rarefied Light 2015, drew a big crowd to the International Gallery of Contemporary Art. Juror Susan Burnstine's statement that she was looking for "photographs that communicate a strong personal narrative" was manifested in a number of human faces and forms that looked like they were trying to tell a story, like Monika Devine's "River Woman," diptychs by Meike Paniza and freeze-frame style images by Mitch Kitter. Misty photos by Burnstine herself are hanging in the south gallery space.

Rarefied Light will travel to the Bear Gallery in Fairbanks from Dec. 4-26 and to the Kenai Fine Arts Center from Jan. 14-Feb. 26.

The Hotel Captain Cook was the site of a fundraiser for the West High Foundation that was selling pieces by artists who attended, graduated from or identified themselves as boosters of West High School. It was an impressive list including, among others, Duke Russell, Christina Zafren, Alexandra Sonneborn, Ted Kim and KN Goodrich. A couple of bands were playing at different spots on the ground floor. Alas, the art was picked up by buyers at the end of the night. But in the south corridor, a separate fundraiser was underway at H.M. Bark, a relatively new pet boutique. The store featured paintings by Gina Edwards, aka Ginaart, some of which were being auctioned off to raise money for greyhound adoption and an outfit called Straw for Dogs that tends to the needs of canines who have to spend much of the Alaska winter outdoors. Those paintings will remain on display for a while.

One of the West High artists, Tami Phelps, had representational paintings at the Cook fundraiser, but next door, at the Snow City Cafe, she had a show of encaustic work that was totally different. The cold wax and metal assemblages implied connection and attachment, with clasps, hooks and latches featured in the paintings.

Seward artist Janina Simutis was not part of the First Friday happenings, but also had two diverse forms of art on display. Her paintings suggestive of Whitehorse illustrator Nathalie Parenteau were in the Stephan's Fine Art store in the Cook and more abstract, flowing images made from stream-polished rocks and mussel shells were in the Crest Gallery across the corridor.

Anchorage author wins Kindle prize

The First Friday artists at Artique Ltd. included Susan Lindsey, who was mainly represented by still-lifes, and Rod Weagant, who displayed strong Alaska landscapes. If you're in Artique, check out additional landscapes by Douglas Girand also on display.

In addition to painters, Artique hosted local authors Archana Mishra and Owen Thomas doing book-signings. Thomas' novel "The Lion Trees" recently won the 2015 Kindle Book Award in the literary fiction category. He wins $350 in cash and assorted other non-cash prizes worth a total of about $1,200.

In an industry full of pay-to-play reviews and book awards, the Kindle prize has what we consider legitimate credentials. The contest is restricted to small press and independent publishers including self-publishing efforts. The selection is not made by big houses and agents, academics or critics but by staff at the Kindle Book Review website, which only reviews online books and does not charge for its reviews.

Contest rules say the judges are mainly looking for "books that grab us from the beginning and make us want to read more." An initial group scans excerpts and sends the best on to reviewers who go through the complete. "Advertising on our site will NOT help you win," the rules state. They also say they're looking for "zero typos" in entries, a criterion we approve of, though we can't say we always achieve it.

Short scripts sought

Ron Holmstrom is looking for plays no longer than 10 minutes for a revival of "Short Attention Span Theatre" in November. The venue is yet to be determined. Accepted playwrights will be given some help with selecting a cast and director. On the night of the production, they'll have five minutes to set up the stage, 10 minutes to do the piece, and five to strike the set. In past years some "Short Attention" plays have received staged readings at the Last Frontier Theatre Conference and others have been turned into brief films. Interested writers should email holmstrom@alaskalife.net.

‘King Island’ canceled

The Anchorage premiere of "King Island Christmas," a musical version of the well-known Alaska book by the same name, will not take place as scheduled. It was due to be presented at Cyrano's starting Nov. 27 and run through most of December.

Instead the company will present "Every Christmas Story Ever Told (and Then Some!)," a Reduced Shakespeare-style mashing of assorted yuletide lore and "every carol ever sung" in addition to every story ever told. Performances will go through Dec. 22.

Off to Iceland

Anchorage Museum director Julie Decker will travel to Reykjavik, Iceland, to moderate a "curated conversation" at the Arctic Circle Assembly, Oct. 16-18. The discussion will include Alaska Natives talking about "the emergence of Alaska's Northern identity through art and literature, while exploring its connection to the global Arctic within the context of science and research." Alaskan panelists include poet Joan Kane, artists Sonya Kelliher-Combs and Da-ka-xeen Mehner, museum curator Aaron Leggett and performance artist Allison Warden, who will perform her one-woman show "Calling All Polar Bears" as part of the conference.

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