Chain O’Chum: Historic Buildings and Art

It’s Wednesday, and today’s lunchtime news chum brings a chain that ties historic downtown synagogues to interesting art:

  • Cityshul. A few days ago, I wrote about Wilshire Blvd Temple and their 2-year renovation of the main sanctuary (according to their FB page, they have started work on disassembling the pipe organ this week). WBT has been successful in bringing Judaism back to the downtown core while still reaching out to the Westside. The WSJ covers a similar story (alas, depending on how you get there, it may be behind a paywall): they write about Central Synagogue on the Upper East Side, which is recovering from a devastating fire. This year, they had more than 7,000 members expected to attend Yom Kippur services, and have hundreds of families who are on a wait list to join the synagogue and can expect to linger there for as long as three years. They are supported by an infrastructure that includes nearly 100 full-time employees, 80,000 square feet of space spread across multiple buildings, a well-regarded nursery school, and an endowment exceeding $30 million. Mind you, this is only seven years after a devastating fire tore through the building, which opened in 1872. The congregation spent the next three years as a wandering people, holding high holiday services in the Park Avenue Armory. They met in their own community center and in neighboring churches and wrestled with what to do next. They rebuilt the builiding, reopening on 9/9/2001 (2 days before 9/11). The rebuilt synagogue retained the original Moorish-inspired architecture—including a stone exterior studded with stained glass and cresting into copper-clad towers, intricately patterned walls in saturated colors, tiled floors and rising columns—that provokes gasps upon entering. But subtle tweaks in the design signaled changes ahead, including support for increased use of technology. They’ve rejuvinated the program, and expanded the synagogue’s mission to include nothing short of rejuvenating Judaism across America. Last month, 6,000 people from 15 countries live-streamed the Rosh Hashanah services on their computers and more than 100 others listened in by phone. Quite a remarkable turnaround.
  • Historical Mosaics. History can appear in many places. In Southern California, one often finds history on a particular subset of bank buildings—specifically, those constructed for Home Savings and Loan during the 1960s through 1980s. This reflects the unusual partnership between moneyman Howard F. Ahmanson and artist Millard Sheets, who built some of the most treasured banks in the region. This resulted in banks clad in travertine and trimmed in gold, adorned with mosaic, murals and stained glass, and sculptures that lauded family life and the history of the Golden State. At the former Home Savings in Northridge, built in 1986, a mosaic features local Indians, the Hawk Ranch, the Southern Pacific Railroad, movie cowboy Montie Montana and California State University, Northridge. At a former Home Savings in Encino, built in 1973, images of mountain lions stand near local farmers. And at a former Home Savings in Burbank, built in 1977, a 15-foot mosaic shows children whirling on a carousel like those at the nearby merry-go-round at Griffith Park. Above its doors stand giant metal sculptures of a man, woman and child, reaching toward the heavens. The collaboration with the Millard Sheets Studio produced 40 banks until Ahmanson’s death in 1968, and 80 more until Home Savings was sold to Washington Mutual 30 years later. Some of the murals are cataloged (along with more aspects of the history) at The Art of Home Savings by Adam Arenson. Alas, the banks, now owned by Chase, don’t seem to care about the murals anymore. Since Chase acquired the former Home Savings banks in 2008, it has whitewashed over Sheets murals in San Francisco and Redwood City, and the landmark Chase Bank Tower in Pomona is being threatened with demolition.
  • But Is It Art? Are murals on bank buildings art? Possibly. What about birth? A Brooklyn-based artist plans to give birth in her gallery as a performance art project. Specifically, Marni Kotak, who is 36 and eight months pregnant, is planning to go through the birth of her first child in front of an audience in an art gallery in the Bushwick neighborhood. The gallery has installed a shower and a refrigerator and already has about 15 people signed up to watch. In preparation for this weekend’s “opening” at the Microscope Gallery, Kotak also brought along her grandmother’s bed, a rocking chair and her own paintings that are related to her pregnancy, including a framed sonogram. After birth, Kotak will move onto another performance titled “Raising Baby X” in which she “re-contextualizes the everyday act of raising a child into a work of performance art…”
  • Cameo Cookies. Lastly, a post by cellio has alerted me to an interesting use of Oreo Cookies: as the basis for cameo portraits. In interesting—not to mention tasty and fattening—media to work with. The artist has a number of interesting works on her site, including other projects involving food, as well as hair and other, umm, material.

Bonus: Also related to art: Yesterday was College Radio Day, a day to thank all those outlets (which are increasingly disappearing) that train our up and coming broadcasters. The Washington Post had an interesting article on the past and future of such stations.


The Art of Reinvention

Today’s news chum all has to do with reinvention and art. Perhaps it will inspire you to be creative enough to comment.

  • Reinventing Confiscated Items. We’ve all imagined the collection of items that accumulate at TSA checkpoints. Michele Pred, an artist at the California College of the Arts, decided to do something about it. She worked with TSA to obtain the items (including a waiver that TSA wasn’t responsible if she got hurt), and then turned the confiscated items into art. There are hazards to traveling with the artwork: in 2003, the artist checked in a suitcase of confiscated items for a NYC exhibition, only to be pulled off the plane and questioned, and to this day, the artists ends up unintentionally slicing herself on the sharp objects in the work. Still, she feels her artwork expresses extremely personal feelings of loss that ordinary travelers have faced.

    BTW, speaking of art that makes authorities suspicious: Artist Alex Schaefer is in the news for doing art of burning bank buildings. As a result of this art, police officers keep questioning him about his intent. Why did he do it? His explanation is the artwork was intended to be a visual metaphor for the havoc that banking practices have caused to the economy. They’ve been selling like, umm, hotcakes: The 22-by-28-inch canvas depicting a Chase Bank branch in Van Nuys going up in flames to a German collector for $25,200; and a 6-by-8-inch painting of a burning Bank of America sold for $3,600 to a collector in Britain.

  • Reinventing the Facts. Two museums. Two presidents. Two ways of presenting history. The NY Times has a nice article on the contrast between the Richard Nixon Library in Yorba Linda and the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley. The Nixon Library presents the Nixon presidency, warts and all, and allows the visitor to decide. Reagan? His museum is still controlled by Nancy, and presents a very “spun” picture, including only a fletting a reference to his first wife, Jane who?.
  • Reinventing a Restaurant. Good news for those having to travel to Fr. McArthur or the port. Although Papadakis is gone, a new taverna will soon take its place. The intent, say the new owners, is to have the same feel, with greek-mediterranean food and entertainment. They even plan to break a few dishes.
  • Reinventing a Bill. It’s silly season again. No, I’m not talking about the end of fiscal year silliness here at the ranch. Rather, silly season for the California Legislature, where bills are gutted and reintroduced with little committee review, with the goal of sneaking legislation under the rader. I typically run into a few bills related to highways that have been gutted each year.
  • Reinventing the Slanket. A design student at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit has reinvented the slanket. Specifically, they came up with a sleeping bag that can be worn as a coat during the day—just perfect for your homeless neighbor! But wait, there’s more! The coat begins with synthetic quilting used in industrial clothing and stitches it to an outer shell of Tyvek, a paper-thin, crinkly material used in mail envelopes and building insulation. Tyvek is so water resistant and heat-trapping that the coat is good fin 17-degree weather and in the snow. The coat-bag weighs only 1 pound and looks like an extra-large coat with a big hood. It costs $7 to $10 to produce. After graduation, the designer plans to make the coats as a business, and intends to hire homeless women to work on the business. The goal is to sell one type of the coat to non-homeless people for a profit, and to use the proceeds to produce others to give free to folks on the street.

Cool Crochet

Whilst reading our corporate paper over lunch, I happened upon an article on the Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef at the Smithsonian. The article was there because a colleague, fauxklore, contributed pieces to it. The entire reef exhibit consists of a variety of “sub-reefs” made by crocheting, and is a combination art project, mathematical wonder, science lesson, and environmental awareness effort. The basic approach is to use crochet to make models of hyperbolic space, where amount of surface area is maximized with a limited volume.

Cool. Nice work, Miriam!


Observations on an Art Festival

Yesterday, we did something we haven’t done in over 20 years: We went down to Laguna Beach for the Sawdust and Art-A-Fair Festivals. I recall we last went to the Sawdust festival in the late 1980s, shortly after we got married (I remember this because we got a beautiful rock carving we still have hanging on our wall). I also have memories of going to the Festival of the Arts/Pageant of the Masters back in the mid 1970s with my parents; I vaguely remember going to one of the early Sawdust festivals (it started in 1974).

First, I should note it was a lovely day, and not just weather-wise. We left Erin at home to do homework, and just spent a day—the two of us—wandering the art festival. This is something we used to do, and we haven’t done for a while. It was a great way to celebrate a 25th wedding anniversary.

I found it interesting how the festival mix has changed over the years. In the 1970s, I remember lots of paintings, sculpture, and lots of tooled leather. Sawdust had lots of counterculture art: tie-dye, etc. This year? Lots of jewelry, various framed pieces and sculpture, pottery. Just a few fabric booths, and nary a tooled leather shop. I guess part of it is the changing taste of art, and part of it is the fact that both Sawdust and Art-A-Fair have gone mainstream, shaking off the counterculture roots.

We did do something that evoked quite a bit of reaction: we brought our ren-faire staves as walking sticks. Almost every vendor we visited commented on them (as did a few patrons as well), asking us where we got them. We told them we got them at the Ren Faire: it’s interesting how the art establishment tends to forget the Ren Faire is also an artists faire as well. (Note: to be specific, I believe I was using my stave from Broom Magic; Karen was using hers from The Walking Woods).

We’re planning on going back for the Sawdust Winter Fantasy show, and go again next summer. As for the Pageant itself: I seem to recall that the tickets are quite pricey; however, if Erin is into Art History, it might be worth it.



This afternoon, in order to support a homework project my daughter had, we went out to the Norton Simon Museum. While she sketched, my wife and I walked around looking at the art (and I listened to last week’s Downstage Center podcast). A few observations:

  • As I walked in, I was face-to-face with the “Three Nymphs” sculpture by Maillol. The girls looked like teens, and I was thinking how society has changed in how we view things. How would all the historical sketches of youth by artists be viewed in today’s society.
  • I found it interesting to watch the people watching the art, and looking at how people have changed, especially in how we present the female form today. The artistic view of the female form found in classic art still resembles women today, but how our media presents women (think our view of models), alas, doesn’t.
  • I was imagining the life of the folks who work there: standing in silence all day, not interacting with patrons, just watching…. It would certainly drive me crazy.

Expose Yourself To Art: Carybe Mural Saved, Interesting Shadow Art, Arts Education

A few interesting items related to the arts that I’ve seen on the web or in the news:

  • From the “Travelling Art” Department: Although I never personally saw them, USA Today has an interesting article on the murals that used to adorn the east concourse of the old American Airlines terminal at JFK. It appears that a casual conversation between an airport skycap and a passenger heading home to Brazil ended up saving these murals from being landfill. The murals, created by Brazilian artist Carybé, explore two very different themes of the Americas. The murals had been part of the AA terminal since 1960, and at 17’ tall and more than 50’ long each, they were hard to miss… and hard to care for. Over the years, the colors faded, objects the artist embedded in the pieces fell off, and layers of grime and bird droppings accumulated. So when it came time to demolish the terminal and build a new one, the plan was just to leave the site-specific murals behind and allow them to get torn down and destroyed with the building. The article details how the murals were saved (which wasn’t an easy task, as they weren’t painted on canvas… they were painted directly onto the terminal walls…. and thus to save them, entire walls had to be removed). The saved murals were relocated to… Miami International Airport, and are being installed in the south terminal.
  • From the “And This One Is A Bunny” Department: kyburg alerted me to a really interesting site talking about art created by British-born and -based artists Tim Noble and Sue Webster. These artists take assemblies of what could best be described as junk, and through lighting projections (and thus the reference to shadow bunnies), create totally unrelated shadows. You really have to look at the site, and you’ll be pretty amazed at what they create and how they create it.
  • From the “But I Just Don’t See The Value” Department: Both of the links above demonstrate cases of creativity and recognition of arts. But this is something we’re seeing less and less. The NY Times has an article about how the art skills of 8-th graders are mediocre at best. They can’t recognize styles of painting; they can’t recognize styles of music. What happens when these students grow up? You get articles like this one in the LA Times, where stimulus jobs are somehow downplayed just because they are in the arts? Have we returned to the era when actors are second-class citizens? Is a job working in the theatre or in film doing technical crafts such as scenery, lights, or sound any less of a valuable job than someone manufacturing a car? Is a job working in the front part of the theatre, selecting programs and supporting the production side of things any less valuable than car designers and accountants at a car company? Is our only image of theatre the outragious prices charged on Broadway, or do we forget that most theatres charge prices that aren’t much more than movie prices or sporting event tickets (i.e., $10-$40)? Perhaps our priorities are backwards.
  • From the “Passing of an Era” Department: According to the NY Times, the last Virgin Megastore in NYC is closing… and with the closure of the Hollywood Virgin Megastore, the chain will be gone from the use. There aren’t many big brick-and-morter music stores left (perhaps the few Amoebas). I have fond memory of visiting record stores in my youth: the Licorice Pizza in West LA, Music Odyssey (with the pinball machines and used records upstairs), and the Tower in Westwood.

People In The News

Today’s news chum is about people in the news. So, without further fanfare, some items noted whilst perusing the news over lunch…

  • From the “Walt Disney” File: The Los Angeles Times is reporting on the updated plans for Disney’s California Adventure. As they say, “This time, for sure”. The general approach is to theme the area and entrance to reflect Walt Disney in 1920’s Los Angeles, just as the entrance to Disneyland reflects Walt’s boyhood in Missouri. The equivalent of the castle will be a recreation of the Carthay Circle theatre where Snow White premiered. The Red Car trolley that recalls the old Pacific Electric Railway will rumble and clang along Buena Vista Street, conjuring up the bygone era and winking at Walt’s love of trains. Paradise Pier will take on a nostalgic seaside amusement park vibe, with glittering lights and new boardwalk games incorporating a mix of such classic and contemporary Disney characters. There will be a World of Color nighttime display of water effects, lighting and music to bring new energy to the pier, together with a new Little Mermaid ride, and of course, a Cars-themed area. You can see an updated map here.
  • From the “Thomas Kinkade” File: Of course, the “World of Color” brings to mind Thomas Kinkade, the self-titled “Painter of Shite”. According to the LA Times, Kinkade has made ArtReview’s List of the Power 100. True, he’s number 100 out of 100, but if being 844 out of 899 in his Naval Academy class is good enough for John McCain, being 100 out of 100 should be good enough for Kinkade.
  • From the “Carmen Rocha” File: The LA Times is also bringing news of the death of long-time El Cholo waitress Carmen Rocha. El Cholo is one of the oldest Mexican restaurants in Los Angeles (started in 1923), and Rocha is responsible for the introduction of that signature dish we all know and love: Nachos.
  • From the “Joe the Plumber” File: The SF Chronicle brings us some more information about that debate favorite, Joe the Plumber. However, it seems that Joe is really Sam; he isn’t a licensed plumber; he wouldn’t be seeing a tax increase for his plumbing business; he actually owes back taxes and has tax liens; and he’s a registered Republican, having lived in both Arizona and Alaska.
  • From the “Barack Obama” File: Alright, I can’t resist. There are a number of significant endorsements of Barack Obama out there: Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, St. Louis Post Dispatch.

Art, Elbowed

Yesterday, I was perusing the LA Times when an article in The Moveable Buffet, their Las Vegas blog, caught my eye. It succinctly mentioned how Steve Wynn had pushed his elbow through a $139M piece of art. So, I investigated further.

Folks may know who Steve Wynn is. He’s the fellow responsible for the “modern” Las Vegas. He started by revitalizing the Golden Nugget downtown, and then moved to build The Mirage and Treasure Island, as well as the Bellagio (after imploding the old “Dunes“… the first big Vegas implosion). He later sold Mirage to MGM, and bought the Desert Inn. Tearing and imploding that Vegas classic, he proceeded to build Le Reve, later called Wynn Las Vegas.

Why did he call it Le Reve. Steve Wynn, you see, is also an art collector. He had a fabulous collection at the Bellagio, and one of his favorites was Le Reve, painted in 1932 by Pablo Picasso. He liked this painting so much he named his visual spectacular show after it. Wynn loved to talk about the painting, which was a painting of Picasso’s mistress, Marie-Therese Walter.

Well, it seems that Wynn recently signed a contract to sell the painting to Steven Cohen, a hedge fund billionaire who lived in Connecticut in a house with a fabulous art collection. The price was $139M, $4 million than was recently paid for a Klimt. Before it was to be delivered, Wynn was showing off Le Reve one last time… well, Nora Ephron tells it best:

The next day, after an excellent lunch at Chinois in the Forum Mall, which is the eighth wonder of the world, we all trooped back to our hotel to see the painting. We went into Wynn’s office, which is just off the casino, past a waiting area with a group of fantastic Warhols, past a secretary’s desk with a Matisse over it (a Matisse over a secretary’s desk!) (and by the way a Renoir over another secretary’s desk!) and into Wynn’s office. There, on the wall, were two large Picassos, one of them Le Reve. Steve Wynn launched into a long story about the painting […] Wynn went on to tell us about the provenance of the painting – who’d first bought it and who’d then bought it. This brought us to the famous Victor and Sally Ganz, a New York couple who are a sort of ongoing caution to the sorts of people who currently populate the art world, because the Ganzes managed to accumulate a spectacular art collection in a small New York apartment with no money at all. The Ganz collection went up for auction in 1997, Wynn was saying — he was standing in front of the painting at this point, facing us. He raised his hand to show us something about the painting — and at that moment, his elbow crashed backwards right through the canvas.

There was a terrible noise.

Wynn stepped away from the painting, and there, smack in the middle of Marie-Therese Walter’s plump and allegedly-erotic forearm, was a black hole the size of a silver dollar – or, to be more exactly, the size of the tip of Steve Wynn’s elbow — with two three-inch long rips coming off it in either direction. Steve Wynn has retinitis pigmentosa, an eye disease that damages peripheral vision, but he could see quite clearly what had happened.

“Oh shit,” he said. “Look what I’ve done.”

Yup. Steve Wynn punched a hole through a Picasso. Those there vowed to keep silent, but that never happens. It showed up in the New Yorker. Wynn was actually non-plussed about the damage: “My feeling was, It’s a picture, it’s my picture, we’ll fix it. Nobody got sick or died. It’s a picture. It took Picasso five hours to paint it.” The damage voided the sales contract. The painting wound up in the hands of an art restorer, who has told Wynn that when he’s done with it, in six or eight weeks, you won’t be able to tell that Wynn’s elbow passed through Marie-Thérèse Walter’s left forearm. As for Wynn… he took this as a sign from above… and has decided to keep the picture.

Think about that the next time you elbow your art.