November 2013

The Sunday Poem: Miriam Sagan’s Seven Places in America

By |11.23.13|


“Miriam Sagan’s Seven Places is a lovely collection of verbal souvenirs, resonant snapshots plumbing the mists, the touches, the footfalls that evoke place,” writes art critic Lucy Lippard. “Before I started reading I knew some of these places. […]

July 2013

Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours: A Film With Big Ideas and Small Details

By |07.18.13|


There are times when art criticism can illuminate a specific art work—expand on it, put it into context, or communicate details too easily overlooked. But there are other cases when a given art work, film, book, or piece of music is so perfect—so magnificently conceived and executed—that language threatens to reduce this brilliance to a phantom of the original.

Such is the case with Jem Cohen’s latest film, Museum Hours. This is a film that could only come from the consciousness of Cohen. It is the prefect director tackling the perfect subject with the perfect cast in the perfect location. And it’s a film that makes the most of the medium of film: sound, characters, a sense of place, and images quietly unfold like a Sunday with no church. In other words, Museum Hours is artful, but never pretentiously arty, and it should be seen on a big screen to be best appreciated.

It may come as a surprise that a filmmaker known for his documentary work, lo-fi short films, and collaborations with musicians Patti Smith, Fugazi, Terry Riley, and R.E.M. would create his finest work to date in the form of a fictionalized feature beautifully shot on high-definition digital video and super-16-millimeter film.

But in many ways, Museum Hours is the culmination of everything Cohen has done before, and if there were any justice in the world, he would finally receive the widespread recognition he deserves in the U.S. as a result of this film. While Museum Hours is big in ambition, it is small in terms of crew and budget, which is typical of Cohen’s projects. The filmmaker worked with a crew of one to seven people, with no gaffer or grips, script person, location manager, or caterer. The filmmaker used only existing natural and artificial light for shooting, and before production began, shot for weeks on the streets of Vienna with a wind-up 16mm Bolex.


The loose plot of Museum Hours centers on a museum guard named Johann, played by Bobby Sommer, and Anne, a stranger to Vienna, portrayed by Mary Margaret O’Hara. Anne travels from Canada to Vienna to see a cousin who has lapsed into a coma—a relative she hasn’t seen in years with no other living family. As the winter days pass and the cousin’s condition deteriorates, Anne attempts to occupy herself with little money and no local connections. (There are no beautiful people wearing designer clothes dining at fancy restaurants leisurely touring Europe with mysterious funds in Museum Hours.) Johann extends friendship to Anne, showing her the city’s sites, providing her with a free museum pass, and serving as a liaison with the staff at the hospital when language proves to be a barrier.

O’Hara and Sommer, with their memorable faces and natural rapport, seem born for these roles and breathe authenticity into Cohen’s script. Cohen is more interested in veracity than finely honed perfection, and the conversations between the two actors are a wonderful and successful experiment in improvisation.

But it is really the palatial Kunsthistorisches Museum and the city of Vienna that are the stars of Museum Hours. Cohen’s stunning camerawork creates a brilliant dialogue between the museum’s artworks and the city outside. The camera lingers on the painting of a bird, then slowly transitions to a starling perched over Vienna. The Kunsthistorisches Museum is particularly rich in the work of 16th-century Flemish painter Pieter Brueghel, and Cohen draws thoughtful parallels between the earthy, unsentimental life of Brueghel’s peasants and today’s urban inhabitants.




Cohen’s work often reminds me of wabi-sabi, a Japanese aesthetic that finds beauty in things imperfect, impermanent, unconventional, and incomplete. In the wabi-sabi system, beauty can be cajoled from ugliness and quality lies in the inconspicuous, overlooked details. If this isn’t a perfect description of both Jem Cohen and Brueghel’s work, then I don’t know what is.

“The film got its start in the Brueghel room of Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum,” says Cohen.
“Looking at certain paintings there, all from the 16th Century, I was particularly struck by the fact that the central focus, even the primary subject, was hard to pin down. This was clearly intentional, oddly modern (even radical), and for me, deeply resonant…I recognized a connected sensibility I’d felt when shooting documentary street footage, which I’ve done for many years. On the street, if there even is such a thing as foreground and background, they’re constantly changing places. Anything can rise to prominence or suddenly disappear: light, the shape of a building, a couple arguing, a rainstorm, the sound of coughing, sparrows… (And it isn’t limited to the physical. The street is also made up of history, folklore, politics, economics, and a thousand fragmented narratives).”
Like Brueghel’s paintings, Museum Hours refuses to tell us where to look and how to feel. “It’s like a kind of ‘guided unguided tour,'” Cohen explained to Filmmaker magazine.




The subject of looking is the central theme of Museum Hours. Seeing has always been an underlying topic in Cohen’s films, but in Museum Hours the filmmaker tackles the subject head on. Eyes are everywhere in this film—in paintings, on city signs, on Egyptian antiquities, on the faces of young and old residents. Vienna’s inhabitants stare back at us, just like the eyes of Egyptian sculptures commemorating the dead. Like an ancient tomb, the layers of meaning here are profound and deep.

Cohen suggests that it is not merely looking that matters, but presence–a type of looking that requires quiet and stillness and openness to the unexpected. Death is the common bond everyone shares. It is what allows us to draw a line from an Egyptian Pharaoh to a Dutch fox hunter to a tour guide in contemporary Vienna. It is presence that allows the boundaries of time and place to fall away.

November 2012

A Line Made By Flooding – Artist Eve Mosher: “I Never Wanted to Be Right”

By |11.16.12|





“I never wanted this to be a reality,” artist Eve Mosher wrote on her website the week Hurricane Sandy devastated parts of New York and New Jersey. “Five years ago I couldn’t have even imagined it.”

In 2007 Mosher created High Water Line, a public art project in Manhattan and Brooklyn that brought the topic of climate change directly to the city’s residents. Using topographic maps, satellite images, research from NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies at Columbia University, and a Heavy Hitter (a machine typically used to draw chalk lines on ball fields), Moser walked 70 miles of New York coastline, drawing a blue chalk line on the ground ten feet above sea level—the anticipated high water line due to climate change. In other areas, where she was unable to draw a line, she marked the high water boundary with illuminated beacons.









Elizabeth Kolbert describes Eve’s project in a recent issue of The New Yorker :
Ten feet above sea level was the height that waters were expected to reach in New York during a hundred-year flood. Owing to climate change, though, the whole concept of a hundred-year flood was becoming obsolete. By the twenty-twenties, according to a report that Mosher read by a scientist at Columbia University, what used to be a hundred-year flood could be happening once every forty years. By the twenty-fifties, as sea levels continued to rise, it would become a twenty-year event. And by the twenty-eighties it could be occurring as often as once every four years. Mosher couldn’t understand why a projection like this wasn’t a major topic of discussion in Washington. In fact, it wasn’t being discussed at all.
As Mosher made her way around Brooklyn and, later, Manhattan, she hoped that the High Water Line, as she called her project, would prompt people to ask her what she was doing. “I wanted to leave this visually interesting mark, to open up a space for conversation,” she said last week
The audaciousness of Mosher’s project allowed her to engage with an economically and racially diverse group of residents. As she walked through neighborhoods, she talked to people, handed out flyers, and explained her motivations for drawing a 70-mile line through their communities. Workshops, education booklets, and a website were also an integral part of the project.







June 2012

Artists Transform New York City’s Water Towers into Works of Art

By |06.22.12|


When you turn on the tap in your kitchen, do you ever think about where the water pouring out of your faucet comes from? Do you ever consider the fact that a simple thing like clean drinking water requires an elaborate system of pipes, reservoirs, water tanks, wells, and treatment plants? Probably not.

We take the infrastructure of modern life for granted. Only when we experience a natural disaster like a massive ice storm or hurricane do we realize how reliant we are on highways, trains, power grids, subways, and public water works for modern-day conveniences.

New York City is a playground for infrastructure lovers like myself. The Japanese may have their remarkable manhole covers, but New Yorkers have those ever-present water towers perched on tops of buildings throughout the city.


The best artists have the ability to make the invisible visible. Last week, a colorful new water tower perched on the top of a roof in DUMBO caught my attention. “Watertower” is the creation of artist Tom Fruin. As Hyperallergic reports, the sculpture is constructed entirely from salvaged and recycled Plexiglas and steel:
Fruin gathered the 1,000 pieces of plexiglas from businesses and buildings all over New York City and the steel from Pennsylvania. This is the fourth work in a global series of sculptures by the artist, all of which pay tribute to architectural icons in their respective locations (an obelisk in Buenos Aires, for example) using the same materials combined to form a gridded, patchwork and playful aesthetic.”
“Watertower” is illuminated by the sun during the day and light sequences by projection designer Jeff Sugg at night, bringing to mind a kind of glowing, sculptural, scrap-art version of another famous tribute to New York — Mondrian’s “Broadway Boogie Woogie.”






In 1998 the British artist Rachel Whiteread installed Water Tower on a roof in the Soho neighborhood of New York City. The piece was commissioned by the Public Art Fund and was the artist’s first public sculpture to be conceived and displayed in the United States.

Water Tower is now installed on the rooftop above the Museum of Modern Art’s sculpture garden. The sculpture is a resin cast of the interior of a once-functioning cedar water tower, chosen specifically for the texture this type of wood would impart to the surface.

The translucent resin captures the qualities of the surrounding sky. On a blue day the tower appears blue, but on an overcast day, like the day I visited the museum, the tower is whispery white. On a moonless night it will disappear, but if you catch the water tower on a night when the moon is full, Whiteread’s piece has a luminescent, pearly sheen. At times, the tower seems to be composed entirely of water, as in these images…



This week I received news of another new public art project involving New York’s pervasive water tanks. Word Above the Street has just announced The Water Tank Project, a landmark public art initiative focused on raising attention of water as a precious resource.

December 2011

Pick of the Week: Matthew Northridge’s Pictures by Wire and Wireless

By |12.31.11|


If you haven’t seen Matthew Northridge’s solo show Pictures by Wire and Wireless at KANSAS, the newest gallery on Tribeca’s up-and-coming gallery row, you’re in luck. The show has just been extended until Saturday, January 7th. Art Forum magazine has placed Pictures by Wire and Wireless on their “Critic’s Pick” list. I had the pleasure of seeing the show in New York this November and can assure you that the distinction is well deserved.

Northridge is one of the few contemporary artists I can think of pushing the boundaries of collage as an art form. Equally playful and orderly, his obsessive, detailed work, composed of cultural ephemera, is never marred by irksome cleverness or a hollow cataloging impulse. This is art that improves upon closer examination–art that reveals itself slowly without ever relinquishing all of its mysteries.

“Welcome Back to the Nuclear Age” is a good case in point. This colorful, tangled loop immediately grabbed my attention when I saw it in the gallery. But only when I approached the piece did I realize that it was a collage composed of hundreds of carefully arranged black lines from various found magazines, ads, books, and maps. (You can click on the “detail” image below to get a closer look).


Northridge’s art work sings in KANSAS’s spacious galleries. While it’s easy to become overly focused on the intricate construction of these pieces, landscape is really the central theme that ties all of the work in Pictures by Wire and Wireless together. Viewing the show as a whole allowed me to better appreciate the artist’s talent for creating highly original, imaginary scenes.

Whether looking at a rolled map of Washington D.C. encased in steel bars, the haunting skies on raffle tickets in “How to Know (and Predict) the Weather,” the layered collages of found nature images, or the miniature structures in “Barns and Other Outbuildings,” Northridge’s invented landscapes always have a humorous, otherworldly quality. His marvelous piece, Northeast, reminds me simultaneously of an aerial view of a city, children’s blocks, windows in a skyscraper, and colorful beds from a dollhouse.









August 2011

Barry Underwood: Transforming the Familiar into the Extraordinary

By |08.28.11|

Imagine for a moment an Ansel Adams photograph. Any Adams’ image will do.

What does it look like? Do you see a landscape in black and white? Is it in a frame? Is it small? Large? Is the image on a poster pinned to a wall or displayed above a calendar page? Or do you see the landscape itself, as though it’s a real place?

It is hard to imagine what Adams’ colleagues and friends thought when they saw his photographs of Yosemite Valley, the Sierra, and other landscapes in the American West for the first time. Today, Adams’ photographs have become so commonplace, so clichéd, that it’s impossible for us to view these images with fresh eyes.

But when Adams’ images were first printed, they were novel and influential. It was his book Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail, and Adams’ testimony before Congress that played a vital role in designating Sequoia and Kings Canyon as national parks in 1940.



One challenge all artists face is how to create original, compelling work that is in dialogue with a medium’s history without being overly derivative. Artists are in constant battle with the tyranny of the familiar. How can a photographer working today inspire a viewer to see a landscape with new eyes when so many photographs have been made before, when our cultural memories are infused with so many popular images?

When I first saw Barry Underwood’s photographs, I was struck not only by how strange and surreal they were, but also by how familiar–familiar in the sense that they called to mind not only the landscapes of Ansel Adams, but also The Lightning Field of Walter De Maria, the sublime panoramas of the Hudson River School painters, the black and white images of Japanese photographer Tokihiro Satō, the orange pumpkins of Joel Sternfeld, and the eerie cinematic scenes in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Whatever Underwood’s influences, he has been shaped by them without being consumed by them. While he may reference the work of other photographers, he has invented a visual language that is entirely his own. When I look at his remarkable photographs, I sense that I am seeing these places for the first time, and I’m intrigued, but also unnerved. It’s easy to forget how difficult an artistic accomplishment this is to achieve.

The brilliance of Underwood’s work is that it suggests a larger narrative, and yet that narrative always remains elusive and mysterious. It is this tension between the familiar and the surreal that gives his photographs their power. Underwood shows us the potential of the ordinary, in the same way a brilliant cinematographer or set designer can turn an everyday moment into a memorable, visual experience.



Underwood’s talent for creating theatrical vistas can be traced back to his undergraduate days at Indiana University Northwest, where he majored in theater and served as tech director for a year. In the end he turned down a full-time theater position, choosing to study photography at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan instead. While working at the Interlochen Arts Academy, Underwood began melding his theater experience with still images by utilizing lighting and other artistic effects in his landscape photographs.

When I spoke to Underwood about his process, he explained that all of his photographs are shot with color negative film. All of the images he made before 2007 (like “Lightning Bugs” and “Blue Trees”) were printed entirely in the darkroom with no digital processing. More recently, he has begun scanning his film negatives and making small adjustments digitally. But it is important to note that the lighting effects you see in Underwood’s images are not created in Photoshop. Underwood fashions these scenes by intuitively reading the landscape and altering the vista through lights and photographic effects. Each photograph is a sort of dialogue–the result of Underwood’s direct encounter with nature.



In an interview with Donald Rosenberg, the photographer describes his process in more detail:


June 2011

Creative Spaces: Angela Cappetta’s Love Letter to Medusa

By |06.30.11|

Photographer Angela Cappetta has a new show opening this weekend at the Medusa General Store as part of their MGS Projects series. “Medusa: A Love Letter to the Mountains” reflects on the working farm community […]