Film/Life: Thelma Schoonmaker Presents

In 1989, at Seattle’s Burke Museum, I toured an exhibition of 19th-century Native American artifacts with the Legendary British film director Michael Powell (1905-90) and his wife, Thelma Schoonmaker, who has received three Oscars for editing all of Martin Scorsese’s films since 1980. Michael’s eyesight being somewhat dimmed, Thelma read a text panel of Chief Seattle’s words aloud: “Every part of this country is sacred to my people. Our dead never forget this beautiful world that gave them being. They still love its winding rivers, great mountains and sequestered vales, and they ever yearn in tenderest affection over the lonely-hearted living, and often return to visit, guide and comfort them.” Michael considered this for a moment, then looked at me with his intensely blue, far-seeing eyes: “That pretty much says it all, doesn’t it?”

 Young Powell was a “dreamy boy” of the English countryside, who grew up attuned to the mystical murmurings of nature and the invisible forces and connections that draw us to certain places and people, and that make us ponder the deep questions of life and death. Powell’s sense of the mythic in everyday reality, his ravishing pictorial vision, wild imagination, and questing heart empowered him to conjure true cinematic magic. King Arthur’s Merlin, Shakespeare’s Prospero, and Aladdin would rightly call him brother.

The Red Shoes (1948)

Almost every film Powell made with his writing partner, Emeric Pressburger, breathes the rarified air of fairytale or fable, even when set in post-World War II London. The Red Shoes, their most famous film, is based on the Hans Christian Andersen tale of a girl whose wish to dance at a grand ball in red shoes is granted. But the shoes are possessed by dark sorcery, and though the girl is tired at evening’s end and wants to go home, the shoes sweep her on and on, never stopping. The film sweeps us into the world of passionate young people who live to dance. It’s a rainy afternoon, everyone crowds into a threadbare back street theater, and someone turns on a record player. Vicky Paige (Moira Shearer, another of Powell’s red heads) takes the stage and, melded with the music, she twirls and twirls. As her body whirls around to a frontal position, Powell smites us with what The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane calls “the most stunning close-up in the history of cinema, a sudden bright ecstacy that verges on the demonic.”  This transcendent moment and Vicky’s religious devotion to her art pierce the chilly heart of impresario Lermontov (Anton Walbrook), who woos her into joining his celebrated European troupe.

Vicky embraces the gritty, punishing work necessary to make her body defy gravity with perfect grace, and she bonds with the colorful characters in Lermontov’s company. She’s especially fond of young composer Julian Kraster (Marius Goring), and she becomes an overnight star performing his The Red Shoes Ballet. Director Powell’s wizardry transports us from the dance-theater stage to an aesthetic-emotional realm of music, dance, Technicolor expressionism, and surreal design that embodies Christian Andersen’s fairy tale and the growing tension between Lermontov, Vicky, and Julian, for Vicky and Julian have fallen in love. Can “the comforts of human love” be enough for a woman who can soar like a goddess? Is being wedded to one’s art a matter of life and death? Over the years The Red Shoes has inspired countless people to become dancers, from classical to modern and avant garde.

As a New York youth, Martin Scorsese felt that The Red Shoes was the most powerful movie he had ever seen. Aside from the sheer joy of watching Powell and Pressburger’s films, Scorsese learned from them as he ventured into filmmaking. Powell always began a project with a sharp personal vision, got that vision onto the screen, and fought any meddling bean counters to keep it there. Years after Powell’s daring and disturbing film Peeping Tom ended his British career, Scorsese welcomed him (“my inspiration”) to his New York film family and was instrumental in bringing Powell’s work the critical and audience appreciation it deserved. Powell gave Scorsese good advice (“Raging Bull should be in black and white”), and fell in love with Scorsese’s new editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, who won her first Oscar for Raging Bull.

The King of Comedy (1983)

Actor Robert de Niro, who stunned the world with his searing performances in Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, brought Scorsese his next project, The King of Comedy. While Powell and Schoonmaker’s love blossomed, Scorsese was in a “Poor Me” mood: his marriage to Isabella Rossellini was crumbling and he felt lonely and dejected. The King of Comedy’s Rupert Pupkin (De Niro) doesn’t have the capacity for low spirits. He’s frantically, exuberantly ambitious in a one-track direction, to perform a ten-minute stand-up comedy spot on the TV show of his idol Jerry Langford (a wonderfully subdued Jerry Lewis). Rupert’s convinced that he’s bubbling over with talent, though, down in his basement, the cardboard figures of celebrities like Liza Minnelli don’t applaud when he delivers his act.

One day Rupert worms his way into Langford’s limousine and raves about his own dynamite talent. Langford invites him to a follow-up meeting, but it’s just a way of brushing him off. Scorsese has said that “the amount of rejection in the film is horrifying; there are scenes I almost can’t watch.” Horrifying, true, but also hilarious. Cutting rebuffs that would embarrass and shame a less obsessive person just spur Rupert on: he keeps bouncing back and reframing harsh setbacks as the challenging stepping stones of his creative mission. When all else fails, Rupert and his fellow Langford-worshipper Masha (the fierce comic Sandra Bernhard) kidnap Langford, with hopes of getting Rupert his TV gig. The extreme social chaos that Rupert and Masha perpetrate is nicely balanced by Langford’s quiet nobility as he copes with these two wild, absurd grown-up kids. Researchers say that we laugh with recognition when we experience familiar, perhaps endearing human foibles and shortcomings. But we also laugh nervously, when behavior is unexpectedly intense, and there’s danger in the air. Marlon Brando laughed so much at The King of Comedy that he hosted Scorsese and De Niro at his private Tahitian island.

Born in the British Isles, Michael Powell loved islands and waterways and, as a man in his eighties, saw that his life was a river flowing ever onward until “there will be nothing left for me but the open sea.” His spirit lives on in his wondrous, thoughtful, thrilling art, and in the hearts of Thelma Schoonmaker and Martin Scorsese. Twenty-eight years after Michael and Thelma’s 1989 visit, Thelma will join us at the Seattle Art Museum to present Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes on Monday, March 6 and Scorsese’s The King of Comedy on March 7. She’ll introduce the films, answer audience questions and speak of her life in movies.

—Greg Olson, Manager of SAM Films

Images: Eagle-Lion/Photofest, © Eagle-Lion Films. 20th Century Fox. Eagle-Lion Films, Inc./Photofest, Photographer: George Cannon, 20th Century Fox/Photofest, © 20th Century Fox.

Migrations & Marches: Congressman John Lewis, Writer Andrew Aydin, & Artist Nate Powell

On February 22 Congressman John Lewis will present his graphic novel trilogy, MARCH, during Migrations & Marches, a SAM event taking place at Benaroya Hall in order to accommodate a larger audience. The event is presented as an educational opportunity for regional youth and a majority of the seats were reserved for students and their families. As a result, public seating was limited and the event sold out almost immediately. To allow more people to take part in this exciting program, we’re staying open late to host a free live stream of the talk in Plestcheeff Auditorium. We’ll also keep the Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series exhibition open and free until 9 pm this evening. If you can’t make it to SAM, not to worry! You can tune in from the comfort of your home right here! The video will be available here to watch at any time after the event, as well.

Created with co-writer Andrew Aydin and New York Times best-selling artist Nate Powell, MARCH, recently the winner of the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, recounts the story of the civil rights movement through the eyes of one of its most well-known figures and shares important lessons about nonviolent activism and empowerment. Congressman John Lewis is an American icon whose commitment to justice and nonviolence has taken him from an Alabama sharecropper’s farm to a seat in Congress, from a segregated schoolroom to the 1963 March on Washington, and from being beaten by state troopers to receiving the Medal of Freedom from the first African-American president.

 

Object of the Week: Spear Thrower

In his bronze sculpture of a Spear Thrower, Paul Manship depicts an athlete in motion. The sculpture has balance and equilibrium as the figure reaches back and prepares to hurl his spear forward. He’s pictured at the moment just before the energy is transferred, with his full weight on the back leg, where the muscles bunch and bulge with exertion. If he’s hurting from the effort, his face doesn’t show it; his look is one of resolve and otherworldly gracefulness. His spear creates a strong horizontal line that is carried across the sculpture by the figure’s fully extended left arm. His features are ripped and generalized; he is an ideal form and not an individual one. With this sculpture Manship celebrated ideas like human strength and achievement, and the beauty of the athlete’s body.

Important links between works of visual art exist everywhere, and part of what SAM and other art museums can do for us is point out this vast web of interconnectedness. Its intricacy and complexity mean that there is always more to discover. For instance, Paul Manship, an American born in Minnesota, was inspired by Indian art, as well as archaic Greek art and the Italian Renaissance that renewed appreciation for classical Greek ideas and developed them further.

In the form of Spear Thrower Manship made a direct reference to this Bronze statue of Zeus or Poseidon at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. Done in what’s called the “severe style” around 460 BCE, it is a true landmark in the history of art, and remains one of the best-known examples of Early Classical Greek sculpture. It was to this school of art-making, and to this particular work, that Manship looked when he cast the Spear Thrower in 1921.

Interesting comparisons, if less apparent ones, exist even in SAM’s own collection. Have a look at our Black-Figure Amphora displayed on the fourth floor, amid other works from the ancient Mediterranean. Revelers stride across the scene in dynamic poses that have them twisting and contorting their bodies in displays of balance and gracefulness. Each figure stands on a single foot, supported by a powerful, muscular leg. Clean, sinuous lines mark the contours of the figures. All these traits surface visibly in Manship’s work of 2,300 years later.

We’d be doing Manship a disservice, though, if we understood him as only looking backwards. In SAM’s Spear Thrower, as in Manship’s famous Prometheus fountain at Rockefeller Center, he innovated a combination of classical, idealized bodies and a distinctly Modern, streamlined aesthetic that secured him a prominent place in the web of art history.

–Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Image: Spear Thrower, 1921, Paul Manship (American, born St. Paul, Minnesota, 1885; died New York City, 1966), bronze, 20 x 31 1/2 x 7 5/8 in. Seattle Art Museum, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Art Acquisition Fund, General Acquisition Fund and the American Art Acquisition Fund, 2008.2. Black-Figure Amphora, (Two Handled Vessel) with Donysiac Revels, ca. 525 – 500 B.C. Greek, Attica, ceramic, 17 1/16 x 10 5/8 in., diam.: 28 cm, Norman and Amelia Davis Classical Collection, 63.119.

Object of the Week: Amulet with mummified monkey

Each of us carries with us a lens, or lenses, through which we view the world, and that lens colors and shapes our perception of, and response to, all the sights, sounds, and smells we encounter. It’s no different when we’re viewing art. Each of us brings to the experience of viewing art our own sets of questions. Art historians produce scholarship that discusses a certain object, maker, or concept—but the questions they ask in the process reveal as much about the perspective of the scholar as they do about the object or artist under discussion. Likewise, it’s fascinating to tour through the galleries and eavesdrop on the unfiltered musings of museumgoers to the variety of art we have on display at SAM. Those comments say something about the art and the speaker.

One object that’s commented on less frequently than I’d wish is this diminutive wood Amulet with mummified monkey—a piece that acts, for me, as an ever-present reminder of Dr. Fuller and his collecting principles, so neatly reflected in this ancient, tiny figurative sculpture. Dr. Fuller, who held a Ph.D. in geology and maintained scholarly pursuits in that field throughout his tenure leading SAM (1933–1973), collected many small, old, and odd things. Disinterested in value, he instead sought out rarity. His guiding question was: Does it have a unique character—an “essential factor”? That question drove him to acquire items like this mystifying Amulet, about which little was known when Dr. Fuller purchased it from J. Khawam & Cie, Cairo, for $240 in 1955.

It had few facts to recommend it, but it was a curious piece that provoked questions for Dr. Fuller and would do the same for others. Shortly after acquiring the Amulet, Dr. Fuller received this letter from William K. Simpson, a research associate at the American Research Center in Cairo:

Simpson’s desire to research and publish the Amulet with mummified monkey encouraged Dr. Fuller to seek out expert opinions from fields that were tangentially related to the piece, aiming to solve some of the quandaries it presented. Outside experts brought to the Amulet their own questions. Professor Bror L. Grondal of the College of Forestry at the University of Washington examined the piece in 1956 to determine what kind of wood composes it:

Meanwhile, Robert T. Hatt, a mammalogist at the Cranbrook Institute of Science in Michigan, had been researching ancient and contemporary animals of the Near East. In his letter of June 25, 1956, Hatt shared with Dr. Fuller his thoughts and questions regarding what species of monkey (or ape) might be represented in the Amulet:

Each of us brings to the experience of viewing art our own sets of questions—but to make our contribution, we have to actually ask them. Your curiosity could spark mine or someone else’s, and whether or not we ever arrived at fixed answers, the summation of our questions reveals infinitely more than one viewpoint ever could.

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Images: Amulet with mummified monkey, ca. 2920-2649 B.C., Egyptian, Early Dynastic period, wood, 3 3/16 x 11/16 x 7/8 in. Seattle Art Museum, Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 55.136, Photo: Natali Wiseman.

For the Love of Art: Beimnet Demelas

BEIMNET DEMELAS
Patron staff member since 2012

Why do you love art?

I love art because I feel like it’s one of the many ways to express yourself. I go to an art school and it’s really different from other high schools because the focus is on art. Having so many different art classes gives everyone a way to be comfortable with themselves and what they can do and, again, a chance to express themselves.

Do you think museums are important to society?

Yes, because you’re seeing artists’ work and they dedicated themselves to the painting, or sculpture, or whatever it is. People take an interest in art, so it’s important to have a place where it’s possible for them to appreciate it.

What kind of art do you make?

Music. I’m in choir, dance, and photography so I have a lot of elective classes.

What do you want to be when you “grow up?”

I really like writing. Photojournalism is something I’ve been looking at, and social work because I really want to help people, not with their health, but emotionally with the decisions they make. So I haven’t really decided.

Do you have a favorite piece at SAM?

I like this one painting—I don’t remember what the name is—it’s a calm and peaceful country setting. It has a pinkish shade to it and has so many little hidden pictures in it that I spend a lot of time looking at it. I go look at it all the time. That is my favorite picture. It’s so beautiful and I love the color. There is a little house in the corner and there are people outside of it but you can’t really tell if you are just walking past. You have to really pay attention. There are fish in the water and there are so many things in the picture.

A Country Home by Frederick Edwin Church. That’s one of our American art curator’s favorites, too. It’s in the third floor American Art Galleries. Do you come here with your friends or is this a place where you come alone?

I bring my friends along. I brought my parents, cousins, brother, and sister. A majority of my family has come to the museum because I feel they should come and see it.

Why do you think it’s important for them to come?

Because there are so many beautiful things and it’s really nice to see, especially when it’s so close. I felt the need to bring them in so they could see what I’m around all the time.

Join SAM as a member today and be the first to see Seeing Nature: Landscape Masterworks from the Paul G. Allen Family Collection at the Member Preview on February 15. A SAM membership means that, like Beimnet, you can visit your favorite artworks as often as you like for free for 12 months. With free guests passes, you can share your love of art with friends and family over the year. Don’t delay, Seeing Nature opens next week!

Blue Sun: Interview with Victoria Haven

Hovering overhead in the Olympic Sculpture Park’s PACCAR Pavilion is the work of Seattle native, artist Victoria Haven. Blue Sun is a wall drawing inspired by a 2015 video project where the artist filmed the large-scale demolition and development of South Lake Union over a ten-month period. One of the more dramatic examples of Seattle’s rapidly changing urban core, Haven captured over 500,000 still frames through her art studio window and created a time-lapse video piece. Editing and viewing this footage piqued Haven’s interest in the movement of light and shadow and how light impacts a space differently depending on the objects, or in this case architecture, it encounters. With the Olympic Sculpture Park as a canvas for light and shadow, Haven approached the PACCAR Pavilion with a curiosity and intent that she shares with us in this interview about the bold crystalline forms that traverse the entire length of the east wall. Blue Sun closes March 5—don’t miss it!

SAM: How do you see Blue Sun functioning as a sculptural painting in dialogue with the sculptures around it?

Victoria Haven: The first thing I did upon being offered the opportunity to create a work for the Pavilion wall, was to spend many hours in the space considering both the interior architecture (windows, walls, floor, chairs) and the exterior forms in the Sculpture Park; the most visible being Serra’s Wake to the North and Calder’s Eagle to the West. These colossal structures are incrementally transformed throughout the day as dramatic shadows appear and recede, based on the intensity and variety of natural light. I tried to capture this dynamic sensibility in the bold shapes and implied motion of my wall painting.

Also at play are the Olympic Mountains in the distance, which I consider an extended border of the park, as they are visible from nearly every vantage point—including the Pavilion where my work is sited. The composition and forms of Blue Sun are in conversation with these works and others (i.e. Tony Smith’s Wandering Rocks), in terms of scale and geometry, as well as being a direct response to the monumentality of the peaks to the West.

There is movement to this piece. Do you ascribe a narrative to the work? If so, is this narrative motion cyclical, linear, other?

There is an implied motion/movement in this work in that it is a sequence of forms presented horizontally, and (for most Western trained eyes) from left to right. These forms create an arc that points to the cyclical nature of the sun’s transit across the sky, referring to both daily and cosmological durations. In this sense, it operates as a narrative—or perhaps a framework or container for a narrative—by addressing two vastly different time-scales via repetition.

The geometric forms of Blue Sun appear in a lot of your work. Why are these forms useful or important to this piece?

I consider all of my work, whether in two dimensions or in three, to operate within the discipline of drawing. Line is the essential component of my practice, and I employ it as a tool which allows me to define and describe space.

When I first began making work that emphasized the space between two and three dimensions (i.e. the Oracles 1999/2009, Wonderland 2004, etc) it looked like a kind of DIY extrusion of the grid. I often begin with a single line or shape that mutates and proliferates to become an expanded wire-frame-like structure. The geometries I employ, though they may suggest mathematical systems, are usually intuitive and wonky.

Oracle 4, 2009, Victoria Haven

Wonderland, 2004, Victoria Haven

In the case of Blue Sun, I saw it in a flash. I had the vision of a large blue crystalline form repeating but transforming across the space (echoing the sun as it appeared in the time-lapse). It was one of those rare and lucky moments when the ideas that had been gestating in my mind merged instantly with the space in the Pavilion.

My challenge was figuring out how the piece would have the same strength of that original vision, with the emotional punch of something between joy and oppression. The space requires the work to have a powerful visual impact, from afar as well as up-close. To accomplish this I drew from my deep well of mind and body memory; drawing and painting line upon line and edge upon edge to create these enigmatic forms as well as the negative space that defines them.

You filmed 10 months of footage for Studio X, the piece that inspired Blue Sun. Did you watch all 10 months of the footage? What was it about the blue sun spots that made them jump out from within so much footage?

Yes!! I not only WATCHED all 10 months of footage, I (along with my studio assistant Elliot Bosveld) edited over 500,000 still frames that became the 24-hour time-lapse video, Studio X—a video projection which documents the radical transformation of this city, shot from the fourth-story windows of my studio in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood.

In the process of filming and editing Studio X, certain recurring patterns unfolded. What struck me most as I sorted through day after day (293 in all) of altered city and sky, was not only the massive construction site my neighborhood had become, but the subtler recurring moments that stood out among the drama; the trees that would appear to wiggle in the distance, and the sun (when it showed up) stuttering across the sky in 30 second intervals.

Still from Studio X, 2015, Victoria Haven

I was captivated by how my low-fi camera transformed the glowing celestial orb into a blue blob, with a halo of fractured pixels and varying values. It was also this aspect of the sun’s repeated and consistent trajectory that opened-up the work beyond the frame-by-frame depiction of gentrification and development on a human scale toward a broader poetic geological timeline. I knew I wanted to isolate this feature and explore an abstract version of this phenomenon. This commission for the Olympic Sculpture Park Pavilion wall provided me with the perfect opportunity to do so.

—Chelsea Werner-Jatzke, Copywriter/Content Strategist

Images: Installation view of Blue Sun, 2016, Victoria Haven, American, b. 1964, acrylic, 57 x 14 ft., Seattle Art Museum, 2016 Commission, photo: Natali Wiseman. Installation view of Blue Sun (detail)Oracle 4, 2009, Victoria Haven, selenium toned silver gelatin print 19″ x 15.75”  Edition of 6. Wonderland, 2004, Victoria Haven, shelf paper, adhesive, Yupo, pins. View of title lettering from Blue Sun. Still from Studio X, 2015, Victoria Haven, dual screen video projection, dimensions variable.

Object of the Week: Dark Figures with Green

Two historical moments, remembered well, can bring us to a fuller appreciation of Lester Johnson’s Dark Figures with Green.

When you next come to Seattle Art Museum and stand in front of Johnson’s ominous painting, if you situate yourself in the right spot, you can catch a glimpse of Jackson Pollock’s Sea Change (1947) in your peripheral view. Maybe the connection will be immediately clear to you, or maybe not, but Johnson’s way of aggressively scratching out figures in a dark and contained palette grew out of the expressive freedom pioneered by Pollock and the Abstract Expressionist school. Lester Johnson’s paintings of the 1950s and ‘60s picked up that mode of creating and took it in a different direction. Johnson was about economy: working to create an impact with limited means. Dark Figures with Green looms over us and says “Look what can I do with only this.” Black. Brown. Green. Three figures. Rough. Heavy.

In February of 1966, the influential art critic Harold Rosenberg put eloquent words to what Lester Johnson was doing:

To respond to Lester Johnson’s work is to respond to painting, rather than to technical minutiae, or to art history, to the social environment, to a tickle of the optical nerve. With painting undergoing an annual revolution of de-definition (Is it theatre? the display business? an illustrated lecture? science fiction?) to paint amounts to imposing arbitrary restrictions on painting. An artist who is satisfied to apply pigment to a flat surface is likely to appear slow and intellectually unadventurous . . . .

Johnson has chosen to build his art upon Action Painting through tightening its procedures. An heir of de Kooning, Kline, Pollock, Hofmann, Guston, he emphasizes an essential principle of their work continually obscured by the clichés of art journalism: that an action is not a letting go, a surrender to instantaneity, except as a ruse. Painting that is an action is a struggle against limits, those within the artist himself, those which he finds in the situation of art, those which he deliberately sets up on the canvas. Mere stroking and slopping of paint resulted in tiresome caricatures of Action Painting that marked its phase of mass acceptance.

Johnson has had the insight to go in a direction opposite to looseness. Distrusting the easy effect obtainable through color, texture, and non-representational shapes, he followed a course analogous to that of de Kooning in his ‘women’ paintings and of Guston in the compositions of the past four years, both of whom brought into play as a counterforce to spontaneity the more or less felt presence of objects and the human figure.1

Johnson was a painter exploring what he could achieve by putting more restrictions on himself than most would do, because adding those restrictions clarified and highlighted his creativity in solving the problem. He was a painter, part of a school of abstract artists, who took away color, texture, and abstract forms from his own toolbox. The things he’s able to accomplish with what’s left—just the figure and a few tones—are impressive. Imagine a great right-handed pitcher like Felix Hernandez announcing he’s decided to start throwing with his left arm, just to see how well he could do—or if Russell Wilson held a presser to tell everyone that he’s done running when he plays quarterback; it’s only standing still from here on out. It’s kind of like that. Rosenberg describes Lester Johnson’s achievement this way: “[He] divined that the freedom of the artist is best served by establishing the boundaries that will most effectively challenge his capacity to act.”2

In September and October of 1983 Dark Figures with Green hung in a timely exhibition of Lester Johnson’s early work at New York City’s Zabriskie Gallery. The show, Lester Johnson: The Early Paintings 1957-1967, was a hit. Johnson’s pithy, powerful statements brought him a posthumous moment. SAM curator Bruce Guenther was there to select Dark Figures with Green from among the pictures. Zabriskie Gallery wrote to Guenther on November 17 about the frenzy of interest in Johnson’s work from other parties:

Bring some folks with you to see Seattle’s Lester Johnson, so you can impress them with the story of the Abstract Expressionist who refused abstraction, and the museum who plucked one of his paintings out of New York when the Met and the Whitney were climbing over one another to get a hold of one.

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

1 Harold Rosenberg, “Lester Johnson: The Image as Counterforce,” Art News 64 (February, 1966): 10, 48-49, 64-65.
2 Rosenberg, “The Image as Counterforce.”
Image: Dark Figures with Green, 1967, Lester Johnson (American, 1919-2010), oil on canvas, 73 x 48 3/8 in. Seattle Art Museum, Mary Arrington Small Estate Acquisition Fund, 84.1, © Lester Johnson.

Get to Know SAM’s VSOs: David Nevarrez

Originally from Southern California, David has traveled all over the USA and beyond. He studied theatre arts, psychology, film, video, and photography. He moved to New York City and became involved in the theatre as a director, playwright, actor, and stage manager, even winning several awards for poetry. In 2001, he moved to Seattle and found his favorite day job as a barista. For a year in 2006, David moved to Sao Paulo, Brazil, to teach English. Upon returning to Seattle he joined the SAM family since being around art has always been inspirational to him. He started writing for a small British movie digest in 2015 and traveled to take a marionette carving workshop in Prague, Czech Republic. With his experiences in the arts and travel, David enjoys the inspiration he gathers at SAM and continues to dabble in experimental film and photography, writing a novel, and writing poetry.

SAM: Pure Amusements: Wealth, Leisure, and Culture in Late Imperial China is a new addition to the downtown location’s Asian art display. What is your favorite piece in this section?

Nevarrez: The Scholar Rocks, as I had not known of them. Not only are they fascinating, but I learned something new. 

What is your favorite piece of art currently on display at SAM?

Film is Dead . . . by Jennifer West—draped rolls of large format film stock, which has been painted on (as was done by such experimental filmmakers as Stan Brakhage), or has abstract images (some resembling digitization) hung up as a curtain (like the old “hippie bead” curtains popular in the ’60s), reaching the floor, and rolling up to 3 large screen TVs showing rolling film images of the abstractions. Is film dead? More and more, movies are shot with digital video because it’s easier to manipulate. While film had twice the light reception of analog video, digital has more than film, though for DV to look cinematic it must be manipulated in post-production. This does not mean some filmmakers don’t still use film; I have seen an announcement at the end of several big budget films that they were shot on actual film stock. Even so, with DVallowing filmmaking to be more accessible, has not the idea of “film,” that is cinema, simply become un-reliant on celluloid and more egalitarian? 

Who is your favorite artist?

As a cineaste, I first think of filmmakers when asked such a question. Over the last couple years have immersed myself in three directors of note: Andrzej Zulawski (who sadly died last February), Abbas Kiarostami (who sadly died last June), and Aleksandr Sokurov. All there are very poetic in their respective styles. Zulawski (best known in the States for Possession from 1981 starring Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill) features intense emotions between characters, especially lovers, in an almost musical style. Kiarostami (best known here for Taste of Cherry from 1997) has more of a cinema verity style, wherein his films seem unscripted and very natural. Sokurov (best known for Russian Ark (2002)) looks at different aspects of power, from the personal to the epic.

What advice can you offer to guests visiting SAM?

Give yourself time to wander about at first, so as to note some area that especially interests you, then return to the area for a more in-depth exploration.

Tell us more about you! When you’re not at SAM, what do you spend your time doing?

After a 9 year hiatus on my novel, I have gotten somewhat back to work on it, partly helped by expanding out to include it within a long saga, concurrently working on other parts. I also work on some films and videos.

Katherine Humphreys, SAM Visitor Services Officer

Photo: Natali Wiseman

Object of the Week: Figure of a Man Dancing

The next time you’ve got an itch to dance, why not come and get a Precolumbian spark from SAM’s Teotihuacán Figure of a man dancing? Standing upright, he strides forward on his left foot, both arms bent at the elbows, with his left arm swinging forward, like he’s in an exaggerated march. It’s a dynamic pose that immediately tells us he’s in motion. Do you not wonder what comes next? Maybe he’s doing an early version of the twist, or struttin’, or putting down a move something like this.

When you look closely at this small ceramic figure, you’ll see a difference in the way the head has been rendered, compared to the rest of the body. The head is detailed, marked by contoured eyebrows, incised eyes, a prominent nose with flared nostrils, and protruding oval lips. Conversely, the arms, legs, hands, and feet are softly rounded and simple in form. Scholarship has shown us that the artist formed the body by hand—making the shape of the arms, torso, and legs very general—but formed the head by pressing clay into a delicate mold.1 This creates a contrast between the suggestive form of the body and the refined detail that appears in the face. The accentuation of the facial features communicates their importance, while the simplified forms of the body seem to be blurred by the vigorous movement of the figure.

Somewhat like classical marble statuary from the Golden Age of Greece, this Teotihuacán figure points back to the high point of an influential, art-centered civilization. Teotihuacán reached its pinnacle of achievement around 350-600 CE, a time when the city spanned nine square miles, and the population reached 200,000.2 We art nerds really geek out about this era because not only had Teotihuacán become a large-scale, international metropolis, but its civilization seems to have supported artists and encouraged their work. The city’s builders constructed massive temples and palaces, painters decorated halls with frescoes depicting the underworld, and artisans innovated new ways to adorn bodies and buildings, shaping fine stones and marine objects into beautiful decoration.3 Many of us are well versed in the ways European cultures have looked back to ancient Greece as a cultural example; similarly, the art and architecture of Teotihuacán became an important influence on the cultures that followed it in Middle America.

SAM’s Figure of a man dancing fits neatly into this picture, too, as one of many anthropomorphic figurines produced in Teotihuacán when the city was thriving. We can learn several things from the artist’s choice of subject. That the figure dances leaves us with a positive impression of a lively existence in Teotihuacán. Second, that this culture provided an environment where folks could use time and resources to produce dancing figurines reflects the value this city placed on its artistic production.

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

1 Before Cortes: Sculpture of Middle America, exhibition catalogue, New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, distributed by New York Graphic Society, 1970; cat. 120.
2 Rubén Cabrera Castro, “The Metropolis of Teotihuacán,” in Mexico: Splendors of Thirty Centuries, exhibition catalogue, New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Boston: Little, Brown, 1990; 89.
3 Castro, “The Metropolis of Teotihuacán,” 89.
Image: Figure of a man dancing, ca. 400-650, Mexican, Teotihuacán, ceramic, 4 1/16 x 3 1/2 in. Seattle Art Museum, Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 65.25, photo: Natali Wiseman.