This VOOM visitor took some cool photos...

There are a couple more on this blog. And remember -- VOOM closes March 30, THIS SUNDAY! Don't miss your chance to see the show!

Our Writer-in-Residence blogs about the new Riverside Theatre production

Elena Passerello (left), the UIMA's current Writer-in-Residence, is also the star of the play Apartment A3, which opened last night at Riverside Theatre, 213 N. Gilbert St., Iowa City. Read her blog posts on Riverside Theatre's Riverblog for some behind-the-scenes info on the production, and make sure you make it out to see the show before it closes on April 13!

And for those of you not familiar with the Museum Writer-in-Residence program, here's a quick run down: Created in the fall of 2006, this program aims to foster writing about the visual arts by inviting four UI nonfiction writing MFA candidates to spend three months each at the Museum. The writers receive an honorarium and an office at the UIMA to work, and each one presents a reading during their tenure alongside other distinguished writers from the UI's famed writing program. Passerello already gave her reading, but don't miss Amelia Bird's turn on April 17 at 7:30 p.m. at the University of Iowa Museum of Art, 150 N. Riverside Drive.


'It must be nice to disappear...'

This week, a musing on a favorite VOOM portrait by Museum Marketing Manager Maggie Anderson. (A.k.a. me, your blog editor!)

It’s tough to choose a favorite VOOM portrait when I like so many of them for so many different reasons. I like William Pope L., the performance artist-turned-surrealist-Humpty Dumpty with a little Lambchops-like companion that sings “Mary had a little — me!” for it’s sheer absurdity. I like Kool, the snowy owl, for successfully transforming the Museum’s sculpture court, an expansive, echoy space that all too often dwarfs its contents, into a transcendent aviary. I like Johnny Depp — posed as Dada master Marcel Duchamp dressed as his female alter-ego Rrose S√©lavy as photographed by Surrealist photographer Man Ray and set to poetry by T.S. Eliot — for its myriad historical layers. The list goes on.

But one portrait does continue to stick out in my mind. This portrait sits contently, tucked away in a corner, waiting patiently while viewers get their celebrity fix with Brad Pitt and Salma Hayek. It waits while ears are drawn to the militant music of Samson, the skunk, or the lively calypso beat of Celine the Briard Dog.
This portrait is JT Leroy, a kimono-clad, sunglassed, blond-mop-topped figure leisurely slouched in front of an eggplant-colored backdrop. And while this sitter might not have the star power (I’m guessing most of you have never heard of Leroy) or cutesy appeal of some of the portraits, what Leroy does have is, in my opinion, far better: a really great story.

The first thing you should know about JT Leroy is that there is no JT Leroy. The name is a fake, a pseudonym adopted by American writer Laura Albert. Albert had written for several years under that pen name before using it to publish her first novel, Sarah, in 1999. As readers made connections between the novel’s tale of a 12-year-old boy enduring prostitution and sexual abuse and Leroy’s own, strikingly similar, history, the author’s popularity skyrocketed. Leroy began making public appearances — but, claiming shyness, he always appeared wearing a disguise: blond wig, hat, and sunglasses.

It was very difficult to tell if he was really a he underneath it all. Which was convenient, because he really wasn’t.

In October 2005, the news broke that JT Leroy was actually Laura Albert. And then in January 2006 it was confirmed that the bewigged public figure of JT Leroy wasn’t even Albert; it was her friend Savannah Knoop.

Countless media outlets had been fooled. It was a great literary hoax — or was it? The counterargument ran that Albert was just doing want innumerable authors before her had done: publishing fictional work under a pseudonym. No scandalous fakery there.

But the difficulty seems to arise from the author’s decision to create a faux-persona to go long with her pseudonym, thus creating the opening for many to assume — which they happily did — that her fictional work was autobiographical. Whether you buy that argument and find Albert guilty (and I don’t, particularly in light of recent deceptions that involve authors lying in memoirs, which, unlike fiction, actually do claim to have a basis in reality) the courts did. In June 2007, the writer lost a lawsuit brought by Antidote International Films, which had purchased the rights to Sarah before the Leroy myth was debunked.

Thus the story of JT Leroy is the embodiment of an oxymoron. In it, Albert played both the deceiver and the victim. Her story was a lie and the truth. And the affair rings of the predictable gullibility of the public and the refreshing confrontation of said bodies’ lust for a good true-life story.

And Wilson’s portrait of JT Leroy, shot in 2006, encapsulates perfectly the binary nature of the thing. It’s at once a portrait of a fake — of an author who not only created a literary pseudonym but also physical one — and a genuine article, one of the most convincing characters we’ve seen in a long while. It's simultaneously an illusionary glimpse into a life of a persona, and a very real success of an artwork.

It helps that the portrait is gorgeous. The diagonal posture of the slumped sitter draws the eye into the work, and Wilson's trademark lighting masterfully lights Leroy’s pouting lips and kimono.
This powerful visual is enhanced by Wilson’s chosen sound accompaniment, the Lou Reed song “Vanishing Act.” The thoughtful, delicate rendition of the tune begins “It must be nice to disappear / to have a vanishing act / to always be looking forward / and never be looking back.”

The sunglasses, the slouch, the song — it makes me think of 1960s drug haze, but the good kind, the kind where (or so the movies tell me) senses are heightened, colors are more beautiful, and a person is so incredibly relaxed she might just melt right off the screen.

In addition to being visually pleasing, I think JT Leroy represents one of Wilson’s most successful embodiments of what he’s trying to achieve with his video portraits. It confronts the idea of reality, invokes both historical perspective and a personal story, reflects on the cult of celebrity and pop culture’s pervasiveness, and it makes you question the very purpose of a portrait. All those things are seen to some degree in the other portraits, but they come through here with clarity.

Looking at that androgynous, slumped figure, we have no idea what physical body we’re seeing. Is it Savannah Knoop? Laura Albert? Someone new? One could come away annoyed by the haze surrounding the sitter’s identity in JT Leroy. Or, one could revel in this chance to choose it.


VOOM sets UIMA attendance record

Link to University News Services release online here and text below.
University of Iowa News Release

March 13, 2008

High-def video portraits attract recording-breaking attendances at Museum of Art

Attendance for the current University of Iowa Museum of Art (UIMA) exhibition, "VOOM PORTRAITS Robert Wilson," is on pace to become the best-attended contemporary art exhibition in the museum's history. The show has also set a gallery attendance record at CSPS, a nonprofit arts center in Cedar Rapids, which has four portraits on display.

"VOOM," which opened Feb. 2 and runs through March 30, just completed UIMA's biggest weekend in seven years -- 1,090 people visited the museum Saturday and Sunday -- for a total of 8,126 show visitors in just five weeks. At CSPS, total visitor count to date sits at 1,134, for an exhibition total of 9,260.

"'VOOM PORTRAITS' won't run as long as some of the museum's previous 'blockbuster' exhibitions, such as 'Victorian Fairy Painting' or 'Lure of the West,' but we expect it to challenge their figures by the end of its run," UIMA director Howard Collinson said. "It will certainly be in our top five exhibitions overall for attendance."

"Victorian Fairy Painting," an exhibition organized by the UIMA in conjunction with the Royal Academy of Arts in London, ran from Feb. 28 to May 24, 1998, and drew approximately 25,000 visitors. "Lure of the West," an exhibition of works from the Smithsonian American Art Museum that ran from Jan. 20 to March 18, 2001, drew about 21,400 people. "Lure of the West" also holds the weekend attendance record of 1,938 people on May 17-18, 2001.

Several factors make this large attendance number exciting for the UIMA, Collinson said. First, near record February snowfalls -- the second highest on record, according to the National Weather Service -- led to two weather-related closings of the museum and made travel difficult for many. Yet, resilient visitors trooped through the mess. In addition, weekend attendance continues to rise from week to week, reflecting what Collinson called the show's "word-of-mouth appeal." Finally, "VOOM" occupies all but two of the UIMA's 11 galleries -- or about 22,000 of 26,000 square feet of exhibition space -- making attendance records a more accurate reflection of the show's appeal.

"If they came to the museum during these past eight weeks, they were almost certainly coming for 'VOOM,'" Collinson said.

"VOOM PORTRAITS," an exhibition of high-definition video portraits by epochal avant-garde artist Robert Wilson, was commissioned and produced by VOOM HD Networks, a high-definition television company. The portraits of 33 people and animals, including celebrities like Johnny Depp, Princess Caroline of Monaco, Salma Hayek and Mikhail Baryshnikov, require more than 50 screens and are accompanied by original musical scores.

Most of the portraits are on display throughout the galleries of the UIMA, with a smaller number of portraits at CSPS, 1103 Third St. SE in Cedar Rapids. The exhibition is open to the public free of charge in both venues.

More information on the exhibition can be found at http://www.uiowa.edu/uima/voom/voom.shtml.

"VOOM PORTRAITS Robert Wilson" is presented in Iowa with support from Nancy and Craig Willis, Doug and Linda Paul, Rockwell Collins, Margaret C. Clancy, hotelVetro and conference center, Moengroup, Reference Audio Video Experts, Gazette Publications and KCRG TV.

The UI Museum of Art is located at 150 North Riverside Drive in Iowa City. Regularly scheduled museum hours are noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday; and noon to 9 p.m. Thursday and Friday. Admission is free. See: http://www.uiowa.edu/uima.

CSPS, located at 1103 Third St. SE in Cedar Rapids, is open 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Information on CSPS/Legion Arts is available at http://www.legionarts.org/index.htm.

For UI arts information and calendar updates, visit http://www.uiowa.edu/artsiowa. To receive UI arts news by e-mail, go to http://list.uiowa.edu/archives/acr-news.html, click the link "Join or leave the list (or change settings)" and follow the instructions.

PHOTOS from "VOOM PORTRAITS" are available from the Museum of Art. To request photos for publication, contact Maggie Anderson, 319-335-1731, margaret-anderson@uiowa.edu.

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa Arts Center Relations, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 351, Iowa City, IA 52242-2500

MEDIA CONTACTS: Maggie Anderson, Museum of Art, 319-335-1731, margaret-anderson@uiowa.edu; Peter Alexander, Arts Center Relations, 319-384-0072 (office), 319-541-2846 (cell), peter-alexander@uiowa.edu

Another Blog on VOOM

Just a heads up to another happy visitor to the show. Read about it here. And make sure you stop by...just two more weeks before the show closes!


Music at the Museum

The members of the UI Graduate Piano Quartet--from left to right, Sam Stapleton, violin; Sung-hee Lee, Piano; Peter Calhoun, viola; and Laura Shaw, cello--gave a fantastic performance last weekend at the Museum as part of our ongoing collaboration with the UI School of Music, "Music at the Museum." In case you missed it, we've got some photos, courtesy of UIMA volunteer photographer Natalia Salazar. The group played W. A. Mozart's "G Minor Piano Quartet," and Frank Bridge's "Phantasy Quartet. Maia Quartet member Zoran Jakovcic (not pictured) mentors the newly endowed quartet. The performance was sponsored by Richard A. And Sheila A. Stevenson.The next "Music at the Museum" is coming up soon -- it will be held at the UIMA April 20 at 2 p.m. It will feature Spanish Art Song and Zazuela Music sung by three sopranos, Colleen Jennings, Erin Smith, and Vivien Shotwell, accompanied on the piano by UI School of Music Opera Coach Shari Rhoads. Don't miss this chance to hear eclectic music by composers such as De Falla, Obradors, and Turina! For students, recital attendance credit is available.


Staff Favorites: Director of Education Dale Fisher on Steve Buscemi's Portrait and Why Clean Jokes Aren't Funny

Interpretation of any kind about art is a tricky thing: Where is the boundary between looking at the work of art and when you are revealing glimpses into your own head or heart? The works I respond to in the exhibition of VOOM PORTRAITS are not the obvious “hey look, it’s so-and so” images, but rather the works that seem to be exploring universal themes and appear to be making an uneasy accommodation of seemingly-irreconcilable opposites in one image.

Take the Steve Buscemi portrait, which is the most intriguing work in the exhibition as far as I am concerned.
It must be that confrontational side of beef and the “oh that’s gross” factor that is grabbing me! But wait, the slab of meat isn’t exactly jarring to me. After all, Damien Hirst is a current hot commodity in the art world, and he often displays inanimate, dead things. Francis Bacon painted sides of beef surrounding screaming Popes, Chaim Soutine painted sides of beef… and so did Rembrandt. Wait, I have seen this idea before. Obviously, Wilson’s portrait has some art-historical precedents. So, why isn’t an art historical read on the work satisfying? Because it is incomplete.

Where should I look next to get to the reason I find this work s
o darn engaging? Oh, maybe it is the artists’ choice of media? Not really. Just doesn’t interest me too much. The videos are beautiful, and I am sure high-def has something to do with that, but I don’t really care enough to even be interested in finding out “how?” That must not be it…

Let me look at the work again.
Ok, there’s a still figure in front of a table with a side of beef. The beef is colored a bloody red, the table is pristine polished steel, and the floor is surgically-clean rather than kill-floor messy. The background is cool and well-lit. The draperies form strong vertical elements of light and color. As a matter of fact, the only other splash of color besides the meat is the blood on Buscemi’s apron. If the subject has art-historical precedents, maybe this random-looking painterly gesture is commenting on 20th-Century Abstract Expressionist works.
Wait. Is that what the artist intended, or is it my imagination? Would Wilson want me to be thinking of him in painterly terms? Is there a difference between light and color that comes from a camera and the same visual effect that comes from a tube of paint? Do I have to decide this now?! OK, since I am considering a work of art, I will use the language of the discipline and come to terms with using formal terms. But how satisfying is it going to be to describe what is very evident in looking at the work? Not so much.

Wait! If I look at art history to see if Wilson is making an homage to other artists AND consider why the portraits are different from paintings AND look at how Wilson has used form, I might get a better, more complete set of information to make some kind of interpretation of the work, make some sense out of it for myself.

Well, let’s see if that works. The Buscemi portrait appears to be about the incongruous juxtaposition of the dead meat with the deadpan face of Buscemi’s character. Death as symbolized by the meat happens, and it will happen to each of us, but still there’s an innate darkly comic attitude towards it---and people laugh at what is taboo or uncomfortable. It is why clean jokes are unfunny and you laugh when you see someone slip on a banana peel. Or is that only the way I see it?