The Blue Raccoon

Sunday, January 20, 2008

More Notes About Art & Architecture
"Lost & Found" at Sol Cooper conclusion; Teresita Fernandez and Cece Cole at Reynolds Gallery; Rachel Flynn and The People's Masterplan and the Rage of the Élites.

"Lost and Found" broadside that demonstrates how these unique women also have variable approaches to their names, though she's Kathryn Purvis, not Catherine. Sol's people must've not heard the correct spelling through his Bluetooth headset.

This image by Amie Oliver captures work by all the participating Lost & Found artists; (left) Kate Duffy's The Night Has Only Grown Darker; Duffy's Untitled, 2008; Aimee Joyaux's Untitled S; Susann Whittier's kinetic Bird's Eye; and off to the right, Kathryn Purvis' Untitled I-IV.

All images via Amie Oliver.

Kate Duffy's The Night Only Grows Darker, which has the best title this side of a film noir classic, is comprised of a shipping crate, with acrylic, ink and enamel. In person, the piece has a quality of Japanese print (the water) and early wood block art--I'm thinking of those tombstone shapes--and the vocabulary of what's become called outsider art.

This is Amie's Deconstruction, with conte crayon, acrylic and wood puzzle parts she found in the alley behind our house. Or did I pick up the pieces some time ago? I don't remember. Together we find some curious finds.
Her Lost & Found work was so new, I'd not even seen the constructions, and was as surprised by them as a number of the visitors were. In a way, she's returned to a style of layering and texturing of materials that she was using when I first became acquainted with her work lo now some 12 years ago, but with revived energy and color. Plus, I always like that hat on her.

Susann Whittier's Bird's Eye is one of the exhibition's more intriguing pieces. This is a moving sculpture made of plaster, doll eyes, springs, wood and a motor that turns this surreal Ferris wheel as the lids of the eyes open as the proceed around and close as they return up. Visitors stood before Bird's Eye with a mixture of fascination and amusement. It's reminiscent of something out of Bunuel and The Twilight Zone.

Aimee Joyaux provided a quiet tour-de-force here with Steel Bouquet I-III placed upon big, old timbers. These look like dried flowers but are made of lead pipe, stell, copper, encaustic and oil. The shadows create twins for the arrangements.

This is Untitled IX in the delightful series Kathryn Purvis contributed to this exhibition. The elements are an oxidation-fired ceramic, seahorse, crystallized rock. The shapes remind me of both dogwood blossoms and doubloons, or other coins found in shipwrecks at the ocean's bottom.

And though not part of the exhibition, but participating in the general atmosphere in Petersburg that night, were the High Street Low Lifes that play old-time folk and rag-time pop music of a century ago, mixed with their interpretations of more contemporary music, and their own, too. This is plinky-plunky-kazooey fun that you'd otherwise need to hear on scratchy 75s on a windup Victrola.

They scrunched into a recessed entranceway next to the gallery and held forth. Their Libertarian nature is on display.

Here they are, from You Tube.

• Teresita Fernández and CeCe Cole
at Reynolds Gallery

The work of Teresita Fernández (VCU MFA, 1992) has received great praise from august sources far beyond this little speck of the Interwebs. All's need saying: "MacArthur 'Genius' Grant recipient in 2005" and "Profile in Vogue, April 2007." She's of Cuban heritage, grew up in Miami, lives in Brooklyn and is turning the notion of landscape inside out.

Viewing her cool but not cold abstract works at the Reynolds Gallery I was reminded of the JMW Turner exhibition I saw in D.C. not long ago. Turner made the mold, busted the mold to pieces, and became "the first Impressionist." Fernández is taking another leap, using unusual materials and bringing aspects of the outdoor environment into the gallery, and as part of larger installations. The pinhole photographs/drawings are where her heart shows best.

Upstairs is the work of Louisiana-born CeCe Cole. Some of the pieces were conceived or completed during a recent residency in Berlin. Back in 2005, CeCe created (in this humble scribe's view) one of the more accessible and enjoyable experiences at VCU's Solvent Space at Plant Zero. That was an installation. The current show at Reynolds is paintings and other makings, "tamed in frames" as she said. Cole's work is sometimes almost theatrical, where Fernández is if not restrained, then informed by the tension between showing and telling.

Rachel Flynn lets the people have their say--
and it annoys those who don't think the people know
a damn thing about any damn thing.

The cover girl for this past week's Style Weekly is Rachel O'Dwyer Flynn. Amy Biegelsen provides glimpses into the character of Richmond's Director of Community Development, and of late, the most sensible yet visionary member of the city administration. [The headline, "In Like Flynn" gives into a journalistic need to make a clever pun; fact is, Flynn's plan isn't finalized, must meet approval of grumpy developers and hostile City Council members, and won't be as an easy accomplishment as Erroll Flynn's infamous seductions.]

Some credit should be extended to the Governor-Mayor for bringing Fynn to the Holy City from Lynchburg, and, so far, allowing her to make an impact such hasn't been seen, heard or felt from the office she holds in a quite a long while. She's come upon the rocks of politics in Richmond, and whether she'll be able or guided around the dangerous outcroppings, or lost at sea and allowed to drown, remains to be seen.

The RVA-blogosphere is rife with views about her efforts, you can read about them at Urban Richmond, Buttermilk & Molasses and River City Rapids, among others. So I'm coming along with me-too-ism.

And, billion-eyed audience, I am weary. I wish my resignation was not so because this is a tacit expression of victory for those in this city who would lord their power over us plebes. I am reminded of the Grand Inquisitor from Dostoevsky's parable in The Brothers Karamazov. If you've never taken the opportunity to at least read this section of the Great Novel, you should.

Jesus returns and arrives in Seville at the height of the Spanish Inquisition. He performs miracles, gets arrested and tossed in a dungeon. There, he is lectured/hectored by the agéd Inquisitor who instructs Jesus that miracles give people false hopes. They--the masses-- don't know what to do with freedom because they aren't smart enough to make up their own minds. The burden of the Church [i.e. authority] is making those decisions for the people's own good. Though they are led to death and destruction, they die happy in their ignorance.

This arrangement commits the rulers to a lonesome and miserable job, but somebody has to impose order for the betterment of humanity. Dostoevsky's Inquisitor is a cross between a nihilist, who doesn't believe in anything, and a proto-neo-conservative, who prefers lies and deceptions fed to the greater public, in order to maintain order.

Seque to this section of the Flynn article, and the comment follows a quote from the Master Plan draft exhorting for the preservation and rehabilitation of the Medical College of Virginia West Hospital. Emphasis mine.

"That kind of language troubles Bob Mills, an architect and chair of the planning commission, the body that must approve the plan before sending it to City Council.

“I have been getting my ears chewed on this thing,” he says. The plan is good, he says,
but visionary to the point of being unrealistic. “This is not Rachel Flynn’s master plan. This is the planning commission and the city of Richmond’s plan. She’s the staff. It won’t go anywhere unless the planning commission votes on it.”

Part of the problem, Mills says, is that
not all of the voices in the community were heard in the planning sessions.

Clearly the people who have participated are the standard 200 or 300 people interested in this stuff,” Mills says. He says the city’s plan “doesn’t have a place getting into the business of VCU and [the state],” whose buildings are within the city, but not controlled by city government."

I am grown tired of such mishigas from this gentleman and those of his ilk because...because somehow they are the self-appointed experts on the best way to direct the city's development. God forbid that the people choose for themselves. Though Alexander Hamilton may not have actually remarked during a dinner conversation, "Your people, sir, is nothing but a great beast," the attitude is implicit in statements by kill-joy developers. Those folks just want to pocket a profit without recongition of posterity or legacy. Richmond to them is no different from Sheboygan or Kalamazoo.

I'll never forget a meeting a few years ago at the VCU conference hall--a former Unitarian church-- there at Harrison and Floyd. Must've been more than 12 years ago and I was on some panel and in my evangelical form and some idiot in a suit and tie representing the institution castigated me and Ed Slipek Jr. saying that nobody cared about these buildings except for us. In sum, what VCU's planners thought should go up was the right choice because nobody really cares what buildings look like, nor their effect on the surrounding built environment. I don't think this person even believed what he was saying; but if he spoke his own conscience, then he didn't deserve any facilities planning position at a university which is the largest custodian of antique buildings in the entire city.

These self-aggrandizers obey the golden rule: they have the gold so they make the rule. Their positions make them impervious to argument or reason that opposes their febrile preposterous ruinous designs. They consider themselves in the unassailable right, and we--the 200 or 300 of the regular suspects as the above quote describes us--are wrong, even if we aren't.

During my tenure as a journalist I have interviewed many newcomer and longtimer Richmonders and without exception, when asked why they've moved here or stayed, the answer is architecture, arts and history. They prefer Richmond over other places because of what is not, instead of what these élites would muck it up into becoming.

What may the élites offer in rebuttal except demolition and failure? What have they wrought since 1948, when the first Master Plan passed? The Biblical description of the sins of the fathers passed to the last generation is more than evident in Richmond. And these are just the mere highlights of the botched, bungled and bollixed planning of the city's elites for the past half-century.

• Richmond inaugurated the first practical trolley system in 1888 but made the mistake of ceding ownership to the utility that ran them, which was then deprived of ownership by federal anti-trust legislation during the 1930s, and the system was sold off to investor portfolios distant from Richmond.

Then the city surrendered to greater cultural trends because the region was mired within internecine and provincial distractions of race, class and petty sectionalism. Richmond stacked and burned the surviving trolley cars in a Wagnerian pyre in 1949. What's tragic is that the Greater Metropolitan could've enjoyed transit-directed development instead of the reverse from which the Richmond region is suffering now. Between Jim Crow and the abolition of the streetcars, I cannot think of more colossal errors committed by the city's so-called fathers.

In a city fond of commemoration, one should realize that 2008 would be Richmond transit system's 120th anniversary. How there'd have been speeches, parades of bunting covered cars--old and new--and media attention from around the world. But no. Just when modernization and expansion of the transit was needed, Richmond junked the entire thing.

The law which snapped the trolley service from Virginia Power, now Dominion, was repealed in 2006. Dominion could undertake sponsorship of a demonstration project in central Richmond, and further justify their rate increases.

• The interwar period which should've been a crucial time of Richmond's 20th century development was instead stymied and sidetracked by the blinkerd arch-conservatism of Mayor J. Fulmer Bright, who sought to spend no money at all, and left any planning to engineers whose aesthetic consisted of a bulldozer and making our streets one way.
Hence, Richmond didn't sit down to serious planning until 1948. Harlan Barthaolmew's document emphasized that the city couldn't engage in a rush to compete with the expanding suburbs, but needed to concentrate on strengthening its neighborhoods, making parks and green spaces, and repairing the bridges and roads. Blatant misinterpretation and outright dismissal of the plan by later city administrators bequeathed to Richmond a bollixed, botched and bungled central city.

• The so-called Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike link of I-95 cut across Shockoe and destroyed the center of Jackson Ward. This was despite two public referendums that insisted the highway get swung out east and around the city. The Richmond Elites got the whole thing shoved into the General Assembly that formed a supra-government "authority" that let the in-aesthetic engineers put their highways to hell right through Richmond's midsection, where people of the time didn't want them.

• The sequel was the so-called Downtown Expressway, also opposed by the residents, and deferred instead an "authority." This cut a swath through white working class Oregon Hill and wiped out playgrounds and baseball fields and a post office, South of Cary.

Between them both, the Big Ditch and the I-95 spillway, more buildings were destroyed than in the Evacuation Fire of 1865, 10 percent of the black population was displaced, five of the locks from the Kanawha Canal were obliterated and the central city was cut off from the James River. The city has fought the bad feng shui karma ever since.

This idiotic idea--dated even when implemented-- was designed to encourage suburbanites into central Richmond, and was proven wrong-headed soon enough. Fewer county residents work in Richmond every year and less bother to come into the city at all, for fear crack-addled zombies will lerch out of the scary alleyways and snatch their children. The only method we've enrouaged for transit in Richmond is roads and cars and parking lots, as though we were building Los Angeles-on-the-James.

• During the 1970s, a Vietnam era "bomb the village to save it" attitude prevailed in a black majority City Council that one would've thought should've known better. Jackson Ward was deprived of an actual Sixth Street market--and given a goofy mall. The Marriott corporation wanted to put its hotel on the river, but the city subsidized them to Broad Street. The Project One building and the Coliseum were all part of this plan. The same people who chose to build the Sixth Street Festival Marketplace decided on its demolition in the exact manner that the project was realized in the first place: without consent of the governed.

The vaunted "bridge over Broad Street" that was to knit together the racial divide of the city--and a feature that had grown on the community over time--was taken down, too. I suppose that that symbolism means that our city's racial schism is healed, and that we all are converted into a sublime state of universal brotherhood and sisterhood.

In Fulton during the 1970s, a community with buildings that combined Oregon and Church Hills, down at the heels then, but capable of a renewal with strategic rehabilitation and demolition, was wiped off the map in the cause of "urban renewal." If such an event had occurred in Roumania, there'd have been petitions to the United Nations for redress.

The expansion of Virginia Commonwealth University has brought an enormous boon of culture and activity to Richmond. Absent the profound contributions of VCU, Richmond would be a far duller place, and not much of a city at all. VCU is a principality unto itself, like the Vatican in Rome. The university maintains more antique structures than anybody. And maintains some better than others, as see the plight of the School of Social Work, here.

Little known are the efforts of an heroic figure, Lou Saksen. Capital improvements at VCU in the 1970s were under Saksen's purview. His leadership saved much of the landmark architecture associated with VCU; from the Putney Houses and Old First Baptist in Court End/MCV campus to the old Unitarian Meeting House at Harrison and Floyd, and almost all of West Franklin Street and the City Auditorium on Cary Street.

The recent undertakings in Monroe Ward follow along with the theme Saksen started; though to this observer's eye, the new business building on Belvidere looks like a downmarket University of Richmond building. But I digress.

Saksen told me years ago when I interviewed him:

"[Preservation and rehabilitation] had to be sound fiscally, in order to get support for it. I did do a pretty exhaustive survey. Older houses much more cost effective, than putting up new buildings. These were solid masonary buildings, solid heat loss and gain. Put in modern glazing but using the old frames or replicas of them. The cost of using old builidings as office space was about half the operating cost of new buildings; two dollars a square foot as to four dollars a squre foot.

When I first went down to the State [government spending offices], they weren’t all that interested. But in the long run, it was saving money and costs for buying property that made my argument.

We went--I was also part of--bought down in Oregon Hill area. Got to save the old City Auditorium. One of the things I tried to stress, you have to put the proper function into these old buildings. You couldn’t put classrooms into each building because it wouldn’t have suited them. We had enough functional needs that some buildings were paticularly well-suited to than others."

Lou Saksen's work prevented VCU from resettling to suburban Chesterfield County to about where Brandermill is today--a move that was front page news in the late 1960s. (Even then, an effective transit system could've compensated for the dispersal of campuses. Ah, well; there is much to be said for density).

Though the Valley of VCU along Broad Street without question improved a moribund stretch between Shafer and Lombardy streets, the contemporary buildings there aren't memorable or remarkable.

The most underwhelming of the set is the one that should make the greatest impression: the VCU School of the Arts. That building houses one of the nation's preeminent arts education institutions. [Image via Wikepedia]. Instead the place squats at a prominent prospect at a "T" intersection and doesn't look much different from any other of the nearby 1990s designs.

When I think of School of the Arts, I see a visionary place like that created by Charles Rennie MacIntosh for the Glasgow School of the Arts [image via] MacIntosh, by the way, wasn't heralded in his hometown until after his death. That's how ahead of the curve he was--which is what you want in an arts school.

The mumblemouthed excuse that VCU is state supported isn't an adequate explanation for what was allowed to go up there. U.Va is a state school, as is the College of William and Mary. And their architectural legacy is quite immense! Yes, those campuses were begun many years ago, and one had Thomas Jefferson for an architect. However, if VCU had had vision, its newer buildings could've been forward-thinking yet timeless. As the junior among others in the Virginia sorority the statement VCU's architecture should make is that of reaching into the future, without eclipsing the existing built environment. This hasn't happened.

Instead, throughout the 1980s and 1990s VCU administration became beguiled by the siren song of Business and Engineering and chose to construct monuments to mammoth egos. And can anybody tell me the purpose for those balconies on the Belvidere side of the School of Engineering?

The School of Engineering is why the plan for a School of the Arts utilizing a pre-existing early 20th century brick high rise structure was abandoned and delayed for two years, which yielded the above presented VCU School of the Arts. And to this day, the Anderson Gallery puts up national-level exhibitions without the aide of a freight elevator.

Organic developments that may not need bricks and mortar--like Curated Culture's First Fridays-- get grudging acknowledgment after they've been up and running for a while. Most of Richmond's notable cultural developments during the past 30 years have occurred not because the City wrote a check, but individuals with energy and a desire to better their corner of the world proved cantankerous enough to endure whatever difficulties were placed before them. But this takes a great deal of energy and commitment. Money and lawyers are often stronger, and expend less effort.

Guess those who administrate or attend the gallery openings, the concerts and theaters, and fill the restaurants and coffeeshops before and afterward are the same 300 or so of the people who always show up at these things. Funny how nothing is said about the dozen or so people-- some of whom are involved with institutions of higher learning-- whose boundless arrogance guides them to say that their asssessments are better than all of ours combined.

These developers, businesspeople and engineers have for the past half century sought to drag Richmond toward an imitation of Atlanta or Charlotte--cities that obliterated almost their entire city districts possessing historic and aesthetic value. These cities are also arranged in a different government situation, wherein cities are not separated from the counties in which they sit. Those cities may also annex. Here in Virginia, cities are suspect and reviled, and operated as money machines for government and crony capitalists.

Why instead has not Richmond followed the path of Charleston, Savannah or pre-Katrina New Orleans? These are cities to which Richmond has more in common that Charlotte, for goodness sake, in terms of lineage and character. And again, people don't come here because they want Richmond to be like everyplace else along the I-95 corridor. As it stands now, the two most distinctive architectural feature visible from cars flinging themselves down the arterial chute are the tower of Main Street Station--which was almost torn down to make way for that same portion of the engineer-placed highway--and the MCV West Hospital Deco ziggurat, now imperilled by a VCU that has forgotten Lou Saksen's legacy.

Yes, as I've noted before, the Richmond skyline that has arisen in the past 35-40 years has not one articulation of the bold, beautiful or the breathtaking but rather examples of the bollixed, botched and bungled. Apply an imaginary eraser to the recent buildings, high power lines and uncharacteristic street lights, then ignore the vast and inexcusable parking lots, to see revealed an exquisite diadem of a city.

Richmond has for generations manifested a curious maladjustment. Structural steel framework high rise offices starting going up on East Main Street in the first decade of the 20th century, with poor to non-existent zoning regulations, all in an effort to keep up with other cities with which Richmond perceived itself in competition. A lack of any long-range planning during the first decades of the 20th century, and an over dependence on engineers, not architects or planners, bequeathed to Richmond a generic ugliness that threatened to consume its beauty.

Thus, the European-style walking city got junked by the 1920s and the mass transit that would've benefitted what evolved was ripped out, paved over or burnt up by 1949. We've been abused and misused ever since. We need to reclaim what remains, before all that which worthwhile is without ceremony carted off in the backs of dump trucks.

Democracy begins in Richmond. Not in Baghdad.

• Firehouse Theatre Project's Festival of New American Plays

Speaking of which, this was the final night of the Festival of New American Plays at the Firehouse Theatre. The votes were tallied at the end of this evening, and Richard Willett's
Tiny Bubbles proved the audience favorite. Both playwrights receive a cash prize.

The other play in rotation was Boston writer Jon Busch's
Pet Shop Days. The piece was directed by Billy Christopher Maupin who, (cribbing from his description a bit), led Tony Foley (recently seen in Theatre IV's production of A Christmas Story as the adult Ralphie), Melissa Johnston-Price (a frequent Firehouse actor, last seen there in Spinning Into Butter); John Moon (a Firehouse alum, too, who also just finished directing TheatreIV's touring production of Buffalo Soldier - which is the only live production ever played at the Pentagon ), Jacob Pennington, Steve Freitas (currently rehearsing for the tour of Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, and Audrey Snyder (seen recently in Stuart Little and the two cabarets for First Fridays at the Empire).

Any play that gives props to Esperanto is a good one, for me. Though the "hippie chick" could've been a bit more quirky.

Busch's play is in a rich tradition ranging from
The Cradle Will Rock to The Shop Around The Corner/You've Got Mail to Clerks. (Heck, the play is even set in New Jersey)

What if Jay and Silent Bob helped run an independent pet store and wanted to prevent its corporate eviction? Some punk attitude and an escaped python mixed with an effort reminiscent of Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney movies: "Hey, let's put on a show!" Except this happens offstage at a VFW hall and the music is punk and nothing good comes of the attempt.

Freitas embodied the clueless coiled anger of a frustrated small town punker while Jacob Pennington gave the right notes to a misfit kid who has worked at a pet store for the past five years because he both knows about animals and enjoys the job. He's applied to Cornell to begin veterinarian studies. John Moon was Mr. Shaw who has run his store as he's seen fit, though perhaps his business model needed tweaking; Foley represents the Man-agement as a former anti-establishment type turned corporate; Snyder is the "hippie chick" turned children's book author who is visiting the small New Jersey town of her adolescence; and Johnston-Price had the somewhat thankless task of being the Heavy in this play.

Given the rant some paragraphs above about the price of posterity and legacy this play resonated with me. On one level, it's about sprawl overwhelming the identity of a town. Just a few years ago, our very own Ashland tried standing up to Wal-Mart, but a lame duck Council there voted to allow the giant retailer entrance. This was documented in the film Store Wars.

Back in 1998, I gave a speech similar to the one that the character Pete gives to save Mr. Shaw's store. And, in the Firehouse's case, a theater miracle occurred. So the unexpected can happen.

The Festival is done for 2008. You can make submissions for 2009, per Firehouse requirements. Thanks to all those who made this year's festival happen, from the volunteer readers to actors and directors, to the fine audiences that came out on some chilled nights for a night of raw theater.

They weren't the usual 300 or so who come out for these things.

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