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Wednesday, October 23, 2013

City Beat Column, ICON Magazine October 2013

City Beat October 2013

The applications are in for the City of Philadelphia’s next Poet Laureate. The two year term of Sonia Sanchez, the city’s inaugural Poet Laureate, ends in January. The appointment of the next Poet Laureate is being processed by the City’s Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy (with final approval by Mayor Nutter) and the choice will be telling. What kind of poet is the City looking for?
In Philadelphia there’s not only a poet on every street corner but there are the readings as well as larger poetry events like Larry Robin’s annual Poetry Ink. At any of these venues you will be able to see the wide diversity of poets in the city.

There are women poets who sometimes come to readings dressed as Emily Dickinson; the ‘Come to Jesus’ poets; the girlfriend-boyfriend poets who write about their love for one another; female poets (dressed in black) who write about how they evened the score with cruel ex-boyfriends, while spurned boyfriend poets write about their “Medusa ex-girlfriend” who is “still on the loose.”

There are the sexual poets who go right to the ‘G’ spot with words and images meant to shock; poets stuck in an f-word vortex; jazz poets who try to sound like Ella Fitzgerald; first time poets who blush and stutter and who are afraid to make audience eye contact; black activist poets who remind us of the evils of slavery; academic poets who do their best to ape Virgil’s The Aeneid or the lyricism of Horace but who more often than not cause the audience yawn; slam poets who combine their words with body motions—a wiggle or twerk here, a twisted palsy arm spasm there, before they end it all with throw back “operatic” head motions.
Let’s not forget the retro San Francisco style Beat male poets with goatees who scream louder than they should as the cocked fedora on their head falls to the floor. Then there are the poets who takes fifteen minutes to explain the poem they are about to read.

As Poet Laureate, Sanchez was able to work with mainstream audiences through the Mural Arts Project, but will other city poets be so easily homogenized? We’re thinking of the talented CA Conrad and his Deviant-Propulsion word missiles, (“It’s True I Tell Ya My Father is a 50 cent Party Balloon”). Will a style like go over at a City Hall Business luncheon? How much will politics play in the appointment? Would a Democratic Machine Poet Laureate with a penchant for Parking Authority metaphors be a safer bet than, say, a latter-day Paul Goodman? Would a gay/ feminist Laureate be deemed too risky, or a Wasp W.H. Auden/ Robert Lowell type be dismissed as “too white bread?” Certainly a “Mom” poet named Sylvia with a love for Longwood Gardens would make no waves, but what happens if she changes her style, attacks her Daddy, and puts her head in an oven? The City is looking for a poet who can appeal to a great many people: not too classical, angry, obtuse, obscure or slam-theatrical. This is a hard bill to fill, although we think we found it in poet Daisy Fried. Joyce Carol Oates says that Fried’s poetry is “as fluid and quicksilver as life seen close up. Here is an original voice: provocative, poignant, and often very funny.” Whoever is appointed, we hope they never forget that a poet ceases to be vital the minute they become a City Hall bureaucrat.

Jeffrey Little and Stephen R. Saymon’s idea for a 9/11 memorial sculpture in Franklin Park was a design of a small Liberty Bell on a suspension bar placed between replicas of the twin towers. As reported by The Inquirer, Little, who is a building contractor, drew the initial idea on a napkin then showed it to police and firefighter friends who told him they liked the idea. He even got a boost from Mayor Nutter, who suggested that the sculpture be built in Franklin Square.

The Philadelphia Art Commission rejected Little’s proposal and called it “cartoonish with an amateurish design.” “There’s a mismatch between the memorial’s main imagery and its subject matter,” the Commission stated. On the message board next to the story some criticized the fact that the first design was made on a napkin, unmindful of the fact that Picasso, Jean Cocteau and Dali also did scores of napkin designs.

The Art Commission’s rejection reminded us of the Rocky statue debate in the 1980s. At that time the Commission decided that the Rocky statue was not art but something alien produced by the commercial world.

While the city doesn’t need another 9/11 memorial (there’s already a 9/11 memorial piece in the city’s Schuylkill Banks area), Little’s design has a miniaturized doll house charm that blends well with the park’s carousel and with the larger Independence Hall area. It even “speaks” to tourists in a much better way than the skeletal design of the Presidents House, which is really a huge mismatch between the main imagery and the subject matter, since it’s not about George Washington at all but about the slaves Washington owned.
One person’s art is another’s “load of plaster,” or “insult to the senses,” such as Jacques Lipchitz’s Government of the People was to former Mayor Frank Rizzo, who hated the work with a passion. "Maybe I don't know anything about art; it's not my background,” Rizzo is on record as saying. “But I looked at it and tried to be fair. It looks like some plasterer dropped a load of plaster. “

Claes Oldenburg’s Clothespin in Center Square is also an urban mismatch. It relates to nothing in the environment except obscure Tide television commercials from the 1960s. Susan Sontag in 2004 described the Clothespin in less than glowing terms: ““Philadelphia is weird. What other city would put a sculpture of a clothespin in the center of downtown?”
Consider also the iron sculpture in front of the Municipal Services Building. It’s an iron without an ironing board (and spray starch), a virtual toy, the same word used to describe Little’s design.
And speaking of mismatches, what about the Robert Venturi designed Benjamin Franklin House, which in dire circumstances could double as a children’s swing and gymnasium set?

Arcadia University in Glenside has so much too offer these days it’s only a matter of time before it is annexed by U Penn. We attended, No Person May Carry a Fish into a Bar—An exhibition of Crime in Art. This was no serenade in the park but a panel discussion on the bloody link between crime and art featuring three out-of-town speakers. The only Philadelphian involved, albeit by default, was the work of forensic sculptor Frank Bender, whose death in 2011 resulted in a larger than life New York Times obit that described him as “An elfin man whose bald head, fierce gaze and Vandyke made him look like a pocket Mephistopheles.” Mr. Bender’s work (his clay contoured faces of murder victims, created mainly through intuition, helped police solve crimes), formed the bulk of the discussion although panelists also discussed “bad boy” artist Mike Kelley’s installation work, John Wayne Gacy. The accompanying slide show of mutilated corpses in public places had us reexamining a statement in the exhibition handout: “…Looking at the ways that art has participated in crime, and how crime has generated art, gives us a better understanding of both.” While we’re not sure we understand violent crime any more now than we did before the show, we did enjoy our time with the Bender family, Ania Manicka and Sami Nakishbendi of Bendi Jewelers in Manayunk, and Judith and Jonathan Stein of Center City.

The last time Las Vegas casino mogul Steve Wynn tried to put his footprint on Philadelphia was his cash and carry attempt to take the Maxfield Parrish Tiffany mural, Dream Garden, out of the Curtis Center and install it in a Las Vegas casino. This time he wants to build a 150,000 square foot casino and entertainment complex in the city’s Fishtown-Richmond neighborhood, but there appears to be another glitch: the ghosts of civilizations past. Apparently the property is also a treasure trove of archeological goodies, including glassware from the Dyott Glassworks and Native artifacts dating back thousands of years. While WynnResorts Ltd. will almost certainly get the okay from the city to build, it will have to work alongside armies of yellow vested, hard hat dirt sifters who will dig for bracelets, amulets, and glass bottles. But must we dig for every artifact in history? There are thousands of artifacts underneath most buildings in the city, including City Hall’s basement, which rivals the catacombs in ancient Rome. City Hall basement was a favorite stomping ground of ours in the 1970s, years before the arrival of the national security state when one could travel anywhere—even into the dust bin of past administrations-- as long as one was escorted by a city employee. Though our subterranean adventures then didn’t yield any arrowheads or bottles, we did encounter antique mayoral desks, tables and chairs. And while our curiosity did tempt us to sift—would we find poems by Richardson Dilworth or a Frank Rizzo love journal?-- in the end, we kept our hands to ourselves, which is what we wish these professional PennDOT sifters would do instead of spending months sorting through shards of glass. We think we’d all a lot better off if we just accepted the fact that older civilizations will always be resting comfortably under ours, and that old artifacts-- like the stars in the sky-- are everywhere.

We were content to miss this year’s Diner en Blanc, that pop up (and hyped) picnic where diners dress in white and carry their own table, chairs, food and drink to a designated place, eat, and then disassemble everything and head home. After all, Diner en Blanc isn’t so grand if you bring lousy food and if your table has a wobbly leg. The City of Boston tried it for one year but then ditched a follow up, proving that everything that begins in Paris isn’t necessarily awesome, despite what a friend of ours said who saw the spectacle of Diner en Blanc diners under the bright lights of the JFK Bridge at 30th Street: “It’s really something to see so many people in white!” “No it’s not,” we told him, “Go to a Dominican convent. You’ll see lots of white and you won’t have to bring your own food.” Or how about even going to The Oyster House on Sansom Street, where you can get a lobster dinner for two for 25.00, a much better deal than Diner en Blanc with its list of regulations and U-Haul flavor.

We felt similarly while making our way to a friend’s house in the Art Museum area during the Made in America concert, where Beyonce’s music (is she really illiterate?) shook the life out of the Rocky statue. Around town that day we heard refrains like, “Give us the old days with a drunk, falling down Lizi Mannelli, or even Barbra Streisand!” Instead of “Made in America,” we made plans to attend the James Oliver Gallery (JOG) opening exhibition for A Koenitzer Affair (on till October 7) where New Yorkers Gary, and daughters Nicole and Dana Koenitzer would be available to talk about their art. Dana (who’s also an architect) and Nicole, were both dressed to the nines, had us wondering if JOG has the most dressed up openings in the city.

Marty Moss-Coane was born on Valentine’s Day, 1949. The host and executive producer of Radio Times With Marty Moss-Coane in Philadelphia, started as a volunteer at Philadelphia’s WHYY-FM studios in 1983. From her role as associate producer of Terry Gross’ Fresh Air, she became the host of Radio Times when Gross went national in 1987. Moss-Coane says that in the beginning of her career she was “terrified of making a mistake, of sounding like a fool, of not being as good as Terry Gross.” In another interview, she talked of her radio guests. “We’ve had lousy guests—the lousy guests are ponderous talkers. We’ve had hostile guests; we’ve had guests who were drunk or high. We had one guy who was as high as a kite. The truth is, that’s the rare guest. Most of them are pretty good and we’re pretty choosy who we have on.” Well, maybe not choosy enough if some of these high recognition “names” are snorting in the back aisles.

Barbara Chase-Riboud, the multi-disciplinary artist who left Philadelphia in 1961 to become a Parisian, was back in town last month for the opening of her PMA exhibit, The Malcolm X Steles. Riboud’s sculptures dedicated to Malcolm X are cast from wax but combine elements like bronze, knotted and braided silk and wool fiber. Something happens to a person when they spend decades in Paris. They develop a “persona.” At the PMA press preview, Chase-Riboud at first didn’t want to talk –“I am all talked out,” she said, though she graciously made an exception only to find out that many of the questions from the press could have just as easily have been answered via Google. There were no questions about Malcolm X or even about the civil rights movement in the 1960s—no Angela Davis references, who was in Paris when Chase-Riboud first arrived. Someone did ask if Oprah ever bought one of her works, to which the very self assured artist (her long hair somehow invoking Donna Summer) replied, “No, I’m not all that wealthy.” The money reference didn’t stop many in the room from noticing what Chase-Riboud was carrying: a glittering Chanel purse worth something in the neighborhood of three thousand dollars.