Bryan R. Monte – AQ18 Spring 2017 Book Reviews

AQ18 Spring 2017 Book Reviews
by Bryan R. Monte

Jacob M. Appel. The Mask of Sanity. The Permanent Press. ISBN 978-1-57962-495-8, 256 pages.
Jacob M. Appel. The Topless Widow of Herkimer Street. Stories. Howling Bird Press. ISBN 978-0-9961952-1-8, 181 pages.
Lou Gaglia. Sure Things & Last Chances. Spring to Mountain Press. ISBN 978-0-9863490-4-1, 194 pages.

In this issue I continue to review authors published by non-traditional or indie presses who I believe offer more than what the big-five have served up on their spring reading lists. I feel that these three books of indie fiction offer stories that are quirky, yet human; comic, yet profound; fantastic yet realistic. Their authors, though occupying different points of the social spectrum, come to some of the same conclusions about the human spirit groping its way towards safety, love and recognition.

The first book is The Mask of Sanity by Jacob M. Appel, who is interviewed in depth in this issue. This book is about Dr. Jeremy Balint who becomes a sociopathic serial killer (the reader initially thinks) in order to cover the final murder of his wife, whom he discovers one day, by accident, and unobserved in flagrante delicto with a hospital colleague. On the surface, Dr. Balint looks like a devoted husband, father and physician who appears to be moving up the ladder at the hospital where he works due to his expertise, ambition and a bit of luck. Unfortunately as readers discover, this is not the case. Positions and awards become sometimes ironically available to him due to his cunning, envy and willingness to do anything, even kill strangers, to achieve his endgame.

The characterisation in The Mask of Sanity is excellent; each character has a distinct and believable voice and behaviour. In addition, Balint’s homicidal plans mesh like the gears of a clock until someone leaves the front and back doors of his house open and a neighbourhood toddler wanders in and into the family pool where it drowns. This ultimately leads to the suicide of one of its grief-stricken parents, which could unwittingly unmask Dr. Balint’s murder spree. The Mask of Sanity is full of surprises and will keep the reader wondering if Balint will be caught all the way to the very end of the story.

Appel’s second book, The Topless Widow of Herkimer Street. Stories. won the 2016 Howling Bird Press Fiction Award, one of the many fiction awards Appel has been awarded over the past decade. Each of these stories are peopled by a different cast of characters: an elderly couple who discover their prefab retirement home has been delivered to the wrong address; a group of older, suburban women who organise a topless, backyard protest, a dying man who wonders to whom he should his stockpile of antique iron lungs, a starving, middle-age actress who’s trolled by good reviews by a man she rejected for a date in high school; a couple who grapple with pulling the life support plug on their teenage daughter who was bullied into committing suicide. These stories have different characters and settings but all revolve around the issues of bioethics, quality of life, challenging conventional notions and how love, no matter how quirky, can sometimes provide comfort in an uncertain and difficult world. Thematically these stories are deep whilst, at the same time, they are also entertaining. If they don’t move you, challenge your perspective or occasionally make you laugh, then perhaps you should seek professional help.

Lou Gaglia’s Sure Things & Last Chances is a darkly humorous collection of short fiction. Many of its stories are set also in New York, although his characters are working and middle-class bridge and tunnel residents rather than Appel’s Manhattan doctors, psychologists and other urban professionals. A theme similar to both writers, however, is looking for love, although many of Gaglia’s characters are unwilling or unable to take chances, or if they do, find themselves in less than ideal relationships. Some have been abused or bullied as Greg in “Networking” who as a teen was hung over a railing by a boy’s father for tackling his son. Others such as the narrator of “Penance” take out their aggression on competitors by killing ants and then going to confession. Others such as the “Lost in the Woods” protagonist, stumble from one romantic mishap to another. “The Listeners” is a story of two different men’s break ups with women overheard by the narrator in a library. The first, remembered from years ago, was due to a difference in religion. The second is related in the present and due to a girlfriend related her near-death experience to an unbelieving, superficial boyfriend. The narrator in his mind tries to comfort the second woman, even though she’s not there, just part of an unfortunate story: Where did you go? What did you see when you died? I’ll listen. I will., the main character says to himself on his way out of the library. In other stories such as “Almost Like Steve McQueen” Gaglia’s protagonists try to summon false courage to go to the dentist. “Winging It” depict son’s and grandson’s desires not to be like their fathers, the grandson not wanting to be pegged in any profession, versus his father’s desire for the stability of a nine-to-five job after his own father had had so many jobs, his mother “couldn’t name them all in one day.” This typifies the swing of the occupational pendulum over the generations—one generation choosing adventure with risk and the next, security and boredom, after the unstable childhood caused by an adventurous father.

What I find most pleasing in his fiction is that sometimes Gaglia’s stories are also a continuation of an earlier narrative. The shy, 30-something introverted Greg in “Networking” returns years earlier as a physically-abused teenager in “Butch.” This gives Gaglia’s fiction an interesting continuity that is also found in his story “Hunger” when his protagonist thinks later about the Italian waitress, Jeanette, who was kind to him after he was beaten up in “Letters from a Young Poet” in Gaglia’s previous collection, Poor Advice. In fact, there’s quite a lot of working and middle-class, school-of-hard-knocks violence and cruelty in Gaglia’s stories. The kind I remember from my neighbourhood where parents physically “disciplined” their children with belts and boards, and the neighbourhood bullies chased and assaulted anyone weaker or smaller whilst their parents turned a blind eye. Violence was also a part of sports that were played in my neighbourhood, mostly football, baseball and hockey, these matches ending usually when someone was injured. (My reprieve from grammar school football came when my front teeth got chipped and my parents imagined the impending financial pain of future dental bills). It’s the realism of these stories, with their everyman protagonists trying to make sense out of a violent and abusive world and how it arrests their development later in life, which makes these stories all the more compelling.

Bryan R. Monte – AQ17 Autumn 2016 Book Reviews

AQ 17 Autumn 2016 Book Reviews
by Bryan R. Monte

Dig by Bryan Borland, Stillhouse Press, ISBN 978-0-9905169-8-9, 2016, 74 pages.
Coulrophobia & Fata Morgana. Stories by Jacob M. Appel, Black Lawrence Press, ISBN 978-1-62557-953-9, 2016, 2016, 182 pages.
Lost Salmon by Scott T. Starbuck, MoonPath Press, ISBN 978-1-93665-723-0, 2016, 96 pages.

Seldom do I have the opportunity to review three books in the same issue, all of which, I can recommend to my readers unreservedly. This is one of those rare occasions. The three authors and their books above are three of the best, but still relatively “new,” writers. Each has his special areas of interest and unique style for which I believe American writing is that much richer.

The first book Dig, is a collection of poems by writer, editor and publisher Bryan Borland. Borland was recently recognised by the Library of Congress for the contribution of his press, Sibling Rivalry, to American letters. Dig’s poems are primarily about Borland’s life as a gay man living in Midwestern America. The title poem or proem is an invitation to readers to dig “the dirt” about his last “ten years,” his “two dogs,” “past lovers” and his “husband,” about the things each brought to their unique literary relationship “ink…books from other tribes” but “nothing from what we are together.”

The book is divided into three sections: “A Form of that Word,” “These Boys” and “Blood in the Throat.” The first section is about Borland’s long-term relationships with his partner and friends. There are poems about anniversaries, “The Body is a Damn Hard Thing to Kill,” betrayal, both real and imagined, “Weather, This” and “Cheated,” and the remembrance and death of family and friends such as “Walking Through the Fields of Ruin” and “How it Ends.” The second section describes other gay lives; those who did or did not make it; some through suicide such as in “Jumpers” or murder such as “The Significance of Matthew” about Matthew Shepherd’s murder or marriage such as “White handkerchief,” in the series “These Boys” in which Borland writes how his partner’s “Old flames, too, leaking into his dreams/puddles of memory that never quite evaporate.” The third section, “Blood in the Throat,” is perhaps my favourite because it includes poems about poets and writers such as Thom Gunn, “Eat the Whole World,” Ian Young, “From Ian Young,” Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, “This Telepathy is Intrusive,” Christopher Isherwood “Isherwood’s Journals” and William Carlos Williams “This is What It’s Like” and their influences on Borland’s and/or his partner Seth Pennington’s writing.

Three of the poems I wish I’d written myself can be found in this third section. One is “Your Older Brother Gives Me My Name” in which Borland describes his partner’s relatives’ awkwardness about what to call him at a wedding until his partner’s brother says: “he’s my brother-in-law.” Another is “At a Bach Concert” in which just as Borland and his partner walk into a Boston church and “lock arms and start toward the front of the church,/the quartet begins to play the wedding march for/absolutely no reason—and for absolutely every reason.” And lastly, the poem “Rooster” about the puppy that Borland writes: “I grow to love him by the second week, when you and I/have figured out how to touch/one another again.” brings him closer to his partner again.

Dig provides a poetic, honest look at a mature gay relationship. It also demonstrates how, in just a short time, Borland’s poetry has gone from strength to strength since his debut book, My Life as Adam (2010), his subsequent, Less Fortunate Pirates (2012) to Dig (2016) This opinion is confirmed by Borland’s receipt of the 2016 Lambda Literary Emerging Writer Award.

Jacob M. Appel’s book, Coulrophobia & Fata Morgana. Stories is his third collection from Black Lawrence Press. His book Scouting for the Reaper (2014), won the Hudson Prize. (Appel is also an O. Henry Prize winner). Appel is one of American’s best short story writers due to his combination of quirky characters and unexpected, snap endings. Coulrophobia & Fata Morgana merely confirms this reputation.

Appel is a master of characterisation. He seamlessly crawls under the skin of his cast characters, who live and work in various jobs and in various parts of the US. Coulrophobia & Fata Morgana includes stories about a female butcher and her murderous concert violinist sister, an East Coast folk singer celebrity and her very destructive, delinquent grandson, a smallpox scare for two guards on the US Canadian border on a snowy New Years Eve, who think they might be in love, an Oakland, California landlord whose wife leaves him for a mime and then won’t talk to him, two New York parents whose infant suffers from pica and an unfaithful minister who can’t sleep at night because he imagines his dead wife noisily making love downstairs to Greta Garbo are some of the many interesting situations and unusual characters in Coulrophobia & Fata Morgana.

However odd these characters seem, though, they all seem to deal with various common themes: fidelity, the value of continued friendship versus sexual intimacy, the limits of friendships and relationships within and without families, and how these families cope with the bad behavioural genes and patterns that are passed down the generations. Appel explores these themes and problems and comes up with very novel, unexpected, snap solutions usually based more on utilitarianism than lofty philosophy. The focus to detail in these stories about medical and ethical situations and their solutions shows Appel’s own wide range of professional experience as a doctor, bioethicist, professor and writer. In addition, no matter how dark the thematic material, the stories in Coulrophobia & Fata Morgana are written with a sense of wit and humour which propels the reader forward to their uncanny resolutions. Coulrophobia & Fata Morgana proves that Appel is a master of the American short story, (in a somewhat American Gothic, Edgar Allen Poe-like tradition). He explores the depths of human experience in unusual cases while still maintaining a sense of humanity. Coulrophobia’s stories surprise, shock, entertain and challenge.

Scott T. Starbuck latest book of poetry is entitled Lost Salmon and even though all the poems in this collection are about fishing, there is something in this collection to interest just about everyone. One of the most important issues Starbuck depicts relevant to AQ17 is climate (change)/species extinction. Many poems in Lost Salmon would have been ideal for AQ17 had they not previously been published in other journals or were pending publication in this collection which was released a few weeks before AQ17’s own debut. These poems include “Strays” and “At Rocky Creek” about diverted or blocked salmon runs. In “Strays” the “salmon who run up the wrong river,” end up “in ditches, cow pastures, even Hwy 101.” In “At Rocky Creek,” the salmon’s progress is blocked by a concrete wall under which they are “floating belly up.” In the book’s title poem, “Lost Salmon,” Starbuck writes: “I can relate, brother/as I gasp smog,” perhaps to the salmon he’s caught who are “wanting waters with my own kind” and to “just be.”

“In River at 52,” the fisherman in Starbuck knows he needs the river just as much as the salmon: “I know if I can just get to the river, everything will be okay.” He relates the flow of the current to the passage of time and the relatives and partner he’s lost and perhaps the real reason he needs to get to the river after he’s graded “…stack after stack after stack/from men and women who don’t want to write/who force themselves into strange unnatural positions.” (This sentiment is also echoed in “Advice to a Student” in which he gives counsel to get down to the business of poetry: “If you want an audience/go into advertising” and ends this short poem with the advice that a bird “doesn’t wait/ for an audience/ to sing.”)

In “Canyon” and “My River” Starbuck worries how rising temperatures from human-made climate change will destroy some of his favourite fishing spots. Lastly, in “Pigeon,” he initially describes his cynicism about individual efforts to stop climate change as he saves a pigeon left for dead by other fisherman “torn by fishing line” by taking her to the vet:

“A few weeks later when she flew away

it gave me hope against all odds
we can slow a warming climate, rising seas.”

emphasising perhaps his enduring belief in the power of compassion to change things.

The poems in the collection are also about other subjects related to fishing. “Meditation on Emptiness between Universes,” describes the healing, revitalising effect fishing has on Starbuck. It takes him to a place “under evergreen shade and birdsong” where he breakfasts on “hotcakes/and blueberry tea.” A riverside meditation is also included in “Drifting Out of my Body in the Dark Somewhere near Astoria, Oregon.” In this the fisherman expresses his awareness of the interconnectedness of life, “tiny human gill slits/in the womb when all these salmon/were his brothers and sisters.” There are also a few surprises he discovers along the way like in “Underwater Piano and Eagle,” the piano, perhaps abandoned by pioneers, or the two lovers he accidentally stumbles across in “The Folks I Surprised In Drift Creek” in which the poet describes how:

“…in remote wilderness
I saw sex—arms and legs in the way
like when these creatures had finned hunger
and nothing else—“

In addition to the moving poems in this book, Lost Salmon is complemented by beautiful artwork. Its cover is a blue-green, mixed media piece on wood by Jennifer Williams entitled “Hooked.” The dedication page has a pencil sketch of a salmon by Herb Welch. Lost Salmon is certainly a book that will be treasured by many—fishers, environmentalists, writing teachers, and naturalist-oriented readers—among others. AQ

Bryan R. Monte – AQ16 Summer 2016 Book Reviews

AQ16 Summer 2016 Book Reviews
by Bryan R. Monte

Utmost by Hiram Larew. I. Giraffe Press, ISBN 978-0-9972243-0-6, 35 pages.
Resonance by Gary Beck. Dreaming Big Publications, ISBN 978-1523916405, 135 pages.

During the last quarter, I received two books that I felt were worth reviewing due to their artistry and scope. Both are by present or past AQ authors and both describe similar concerns such as aging and love. However, their poems have different settings such as country v city and the natural v the human worlds and different approaches. The first book is a poetry chapbook entitled Utmost by AQ16 contributor Hiram Larew. The second is a poetry book entitled Resonance by AQ12 contributor Gary Beck.

Utmost’s 23, one-page or half-page poems are suggestive, meditative, find the extraordinary in the ordinary, and use common words to express enigmatic thoughts. “Anything Can Happen” is the most concerned with the inexpressible and the unknown “You love what’s next more than people—/…You’re so grateful for what’s unknown.” The poem “What Do You Think” also describes Larew’s love of the unexpected. “But most of all/I worship stuck doors/Because they make me blink when I didn’t expect to” or the upside-down world of “Marvely” “When bad tastes like candy/And good is just ache?”

Thoughts about aging are also found in “Boy Howdy.” Larew refers to aging by saying his father’s: “…coat pockets were really my teenage years.//Carry on now is how I feel now — ” In “Vista” he writes: “I’m new at being old.” “Rafters” opens with “Maybe you can’t roar to start/Anymore as others can.” The next poem, “Your Life’s” terminal line is “Not forever but a dot.” along with “It’s Getting Late,” which comments on the aging process: “Too often it seems shoulders are cold.”

Larew’s poems are also about the comfort that he feels in the outdoors “…the best work you will ever do is when/You are opening the barn.” His enigmatic use of images from the natural world to express his thoughts are most prevalent in “Who Is” when he writes: “What I won’t say is why/What I will say is look/I might even whisper smoke—/But I won’t say you.” His line “I will only love a small piece of sky” shows once again his love and trust of the natural world. In “But More” we can see Larew’s artistic delight in the natural world and the ability to imagine other, unknown places. “To swell summer as apples do/Or shade swirls like bridges can/To be lights on in other rooms”

The last and title poem brings the writer back to the natural world with images of “I would be garlands older…”spoons of dirt…”an idea that scratches radishes redder”…”A bird straddling two branches.” These poems are imagistic, enigmatic little gems with one foot in the natural world and the other in the world of the imagination. I highly recommend this collection.

Resonance by Gary Beck also discusses the subject of mortality and especially aging, (among others) but within a New York City nightscape. “Old Age” for example which mentions: “youth’s unebbing hunger/is eternal and denied.” reminds me of William Yeats’ “Long Legged Fly” poem in which Caesar considers his battle options. Other mentions are included in the poems “Change” in which the writer is asked to be a pallbearer for a man he barely knew: “I think about an acquaintance, now dead./I never liked him…I look at pictures of the dead/and barely remember their faces.” or in the very short, “Woeful Vision” where the poet sees a woman he once knew: “No longer young/but not older than me…and a wrinkled face/that has forgotten smiles.”

Unlike Larew, Beck directly describes social and sexual relations. In “Opium Escape” Beck describes the intoxicating and sometimes unwise nature of being in love. In “Fond Pause,” “Sad Mate,” “Two Songs of Lust” and “Separation” he describes the separation felt by the unloved from the active world that goes on. “Severance” is about the intensity of a one-night stand/brief encounter, “Renunciation” about how unrequited love that burns itself out and “Electronic Loss” includes new metaphor about losing a love in a telephone booth or over the phone. Beck’s social consciousness is best expressed in his poems “Dire Prediction” in which his wonders what the the loss of jobs to the service economy will mean to those “who will walk through fire, bullets, blood,/to protect us.” In “Children of Deprivation” he wonders about the effect of capitalistic hoarding from poor in a land of plenty—“know swollen barns of grain/rotting on a distant government preserve.” In “Rebel’s Pliant” he hopes humankind will overcome “its obliterating madness.”

Buried within Resonance, however, on page 98 of this 135 page collection, is the book’s real touchstone, a vignette about the poet’s first submission and its relative worth, entitled “First Poem Sent — Oct. 1962.” In a few lines, Beck describes the respect a poet’s hard, passionate work receives as it is sent on its way: “(I) gave it to the postman./Without a glance/he tossed it on a pile/and it fell to the floor.” Other ars poetic or ars longa, vita brevis poems can be found in this volume including “Possession” with its “dozen poems on my desk…works of beauty wisdom joy wild hearty lusty obscene reverent ecstatic maudlin curious erotic mad exuberance….” “Art Calls” is a prose poem that goes right to the gut as it describes a poet’s struggle in discovering and fulfilling his calling.

There are many good poems in Resonance. However, the volume could do with a thematic regrouping of the poems to give the reader a better overview of Resonance’s approximately 110 poems. In addition, I would suggest moving “First Poem Sent” to the very beginning so it could function as a sort of prologue or proem. These two changes would help a reader dip more easily into this long and varied poetry collection.

Bryan R. Monte – AQ16 Summer 2016 Art Reviews

AQ16 Summer 2016 Art Reviews
by Bryan R. Monte

Andriaen van de Velde: Dutch Master of Landscape, Rijksmuseum, 22 June to 25 September 2016
Living in the Amsterdam School. Amsterdam Stedelijk Museum, 7 April to 28 August 2016

Not Just a Pleasant, Sunny, Sunday Afternoon

On 22 June 2016, the Rijkmuseum’s soon-to-be-director (as of 15 July), Taco Dibbets, launched the Andriaen van de Velde Dutch Master of Landscape exhibition. Van de Velde, the son of a painter was one of the best landscape artists of the de Goude Eeuwe (the Golden (seventeenth) Century) even though he only lived to be thirty-five. The museum has assembled one of the largest collections of Van de Velde’s oeuvre (60 works — 37 sketches and 23 paintings from public and private collections). It includes not only landscapes peopled with farmers, milkmaids, shepherds, shepherdesses and farm animals arranged around a lone tree or thatched huts or cottages, but also the seaside, ice skating and hunt preparation and even a few religious scenes. In addition, many of these paintings are accompanied by Van de Velde’s preparatory pen and ink sketches. The Rijksmuseum describes Van de Velde as “one of the best Dutch landscape artists,” but Dibbets added during his introductory speech, that Van de Velde painted much more than just scenes from a “pleasant sunny, Sunday afternoon.”

The combination of sketches with the paintings clearly shows the development of the larger canvases from various sources. The link was clearest for me in Van de Velde’s “The Annunciation” (1667). To the right of this painting hangs a sketch of woman naked to the waist, posed with the same outstretched arms and expression of fear and astonishment as the draped Virgin who greets the angel. The woman’s pose in the preparatory sketch allowed Van De Velde to make this standard religious scene much more compelling by having his Virgin look directly at the angel versus a more traditional paintings in which the Virgin looks away.

Although Van de Velde was generally a landscape painter, he also paid equal attention to the human element in his compositions. The central painting of this exhibit is certainly his “Portrait of a family in a landscape” (1667), Van de Velde has painted a well-to-do family out for a ride in an open coach. This painting shows off the family’s money through their elaborate clothing and red coach drawn by two white horses. The gentleman is dressed in a brown coat and stands in the centre foreground of the painting with a walking cane. His wife stands on his left in a black dress and a red mud skirt. Even further to his left is his son who holds a mottled white-and-brown dog on a leash. To his right is a nanny who holds his daughter dressed in white. The triangular placement of these burgers also emphasises their social solidity, familial order and wealth in the middle of an ideal countryside.

In contrast to this wealthy family, however, Van De Velde also painted many fieldworkers. “Haymakers resting in a field” (1663) depicts an intimate gathering of fieldworkers, some taking a break. The first four in the foreground are seated. One man has his arm around a woman while another looks on and another man smokes a pipe. To the right is a man standing drinking from a large, brown jug and a fourth man is asleep on a mound of hay. There is such a contrast of activity in such a small space of canvas—and these are only the characters in the foreground. In the background, four other workers continue to build haystacks with pitchforks and by hand. Other general social scenes include ice skating as in “Colf players on the ice” (1668) and “Ice skating outside the city wall” (1669) which are populated by men, women, children, dogs and horse-drawn sleds lit in a dusky gold-gray winter light.

Van de Velde’s mastery of colour, light and shade is further demonstrated in his paintings of Scheveningen which include “View of a Beach” (1660) and “The Beach at Scheveningen” (1670) with the ships and horses lit in what I think is a similar yellow light to what Breitner used in his paintings at Scheveningen two centuries later.

Some surprises in this exhibition were Van De Velde’s “Figures in a deer park” (1667) in which the eye is drawn by a row of tall trees dwarfing the figures of the men and deer beneath them to the left and into the distance. Others are sketches of figures representing “The Continents of Europe and Asia and America and Africa,”(1671) and a few male nudes (undated). Lastly, are sketches of “Plundering soldiers at a peasant’s dwelling” (1669) showing soldiers with a battering ram and others loading muskets preparing to break down an old farmers door. Another sketch, “Marauders attack peasants at their huts” (1669) shows the next scene in which a man on his knees is about to be run through with a sword, a woman with bare breasts is held by a man from behind whilst another approaches, and a last man with sword drawn chases two figures towards the fields. Such was the reality of life during the wars in the Lowlands during the 17th century. These two, atypical pen and ink sketches remind us how quickly a quiet, sunny Sunday afternoon in the countryside then could disintegrate into chaos and carnage.

Living in The Amsterdam School

If you’ve ever wondered what happened when the optimistic, fin de siècle, organic Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau movements crashed into the trenches of the First World War, visit the Living in the Amsterdam School exhibition now at Amsterdam’s Stedelijk museum. This carefully-researched exhibition will show you the lavish interiors created as these movements entered the dark, expressionist wood created by this Dutch movement (1910-30). And since this exhibition concentrates on carefully reconstructed interiors and objects, the visitor is able to get a feel for what it was like to live in a stylish 1920s Amsterdam home, work in an office or shop at some of the Netherlands’ most prominent department stores.

Instead of seeking solace in the simple, natural forms as the Arts & Crafts/Art Nouveau movement had done, the Amsterdam School sought escapism and adventure in the exotic possibly as a reaction, but also perhaps as a precursor of the coming financial and political disasters. Characteristics of the Amsterdam School include unusual use of colour (red, orange, and yellow detailing on dark backgrounds), unusual wood detailing and carvings and exotic influences and designs. It’s worth visiting this collection of Amsterdam School artwork because as director Beatrix Ruf said at the press conferences it “is the largest ever assembled.”

The exhibitions first gallery includes a pyramidal display of the distinctive somewhat-tear-shaped clocks (similar in shape to Amsterdam School building towers) in various but mostly dark woods with orange, red and black accents. This is part of the 300 clocks collected for the exhibition and which also mimic the shape of the tops of the towers of the Amsterdam School buildings where mainly large, exterior clocks of similar design were displayed. (One design in particular, by Hildo Krop, contains long, thin, seated memento mori figures at the top of each clock). This gallery’s exhibition is also augmented (as in some others) by a film, music or video. (In this gallery, it is a silent film about Amsterdam School architecture exteriors).

The next gallery includes the reconstruction of an office with a large table and several very solid chairs and coffee table (One needed a very strong back to move this characteristically heavy massieve furniture) Further galleries include furniture for the home including first living, dining and bed rooms including photos of some of their occupants involved in various activities such as knitting next to the hearth, reading, etc. The dark wood furniture in this collection, some by Peter Lodewijk Kramer, creates a very den-or cave-like interior. A notable exception to this a suite of black and white bedroom furniture by Joseph Crouwel which stunningly presages the streamlined clean lines of Art Deco.

Another aspect of the Amsterdam School included in this exhibition is sculpture including the Modernist looking Girl (three-quarter figure) sculpture and the cast concrete Man with Wings (who looks more like a demon with wings from The Lord of the Rings) both by John Rädecker. Hildo Krop is also represented by his wood closets with wooden sculptures both above and in the cornices. Some of Krop’s work can also be found today on some of the city centre’s sculptured bridge pillars.

The exoticism of the Amsterdam School movement is given further explanation by its use in film theatres and department stores. In the 1920s, going to these two buildings was a type of escape, the first for a new form of entertainment—film, the second to a sort of retail adventure. These are demonstrated for example, by photos of the Tuschinski theatre’s Pieter den Besten’s native American designs (mural and lamp) and in The Hague’s Bijenkorf department store’s by two, giant, dark-wood, carved staircase padauks with details of flautists, a harpist and theatre masks by H. A. van de Einde. Toordorp is also represented by an expressionist (almost ’60s hippieish) brightly-painted wooden changing screen.

The last three galleries include even more gems. In the antepenultimate gallery, objects are displayed on shelves similar to those used in depots. These objects include firescreens, ceramics, a cradle, and an exquisite chest of drawers by Louis Bogtman of batik-patterned wood and wrought-iron from a private collection which demonstrates how Eastern styles affected the Amsterdam School.

The penultimate room in the exhibition has dozens of characteristically tear-shaped, dark, metal, hanging electric lamps demonstrating the new influence electricity was having on home interiors. Across from the lamps are distinctive stained-glass windows for both commercial and home use.

The exhibit’s final room contains a collection of Amsterdam School exhibition posters of shows, revivals and retrospectives. In the centre of the room is a red, yellow and white bedside table by Hildo Krop, which looks strikingly similar to the simple angular, Mondrian-coloured Modernist furniture made by Gerrit Rietveld. It demonstrates how Dutch interior design and this long-lived, multi-media artist (1884-1970) reinvented themselves again in the 1930s.

There’s probably something to satisfy everyone’s interest in early 20th Dutch interiors from chairs, tables, sofas, beds, desks, paintings, rugs, lamps, windows, posters, art magazines, photos, film, video and music. Visitors with children will probably be grateful for the “Build Your Own Clock” hands-on activity area, about two-thirds of the way through the exhibition, for visitors with children. Here children can construct and customize (detail and colour) their own Amsterdam School style clock. There are three different styles (5 minutes for the easiest, 15 for the most difficult). The clockworks, however, must be purchase downstairs at museum shop.

Even though Dr. Marjan Groot spent 10 years researching and collecting the Living in the Amsterdam School’s over 500 objects, gallery visitors are not overwhelmed by either too many objects or too much information. Her selection provides a rich overview that is exhaustive but not exhausting for the visitor. It is both scholarly and tasteful and the perfect length for a morning or afternoon museum visit.

Bryan R. Monte – AQ15 Spring 2016 Book Reviews

AQ15 Spring 2016 Book Reviews
by Bryan R. Monte

Scott T. Starbuck. Industrial Oz. Ecopoems. Fomite Press. ISBN 978-19425-15166, 111 pages.
Jane Summer. Erebus. Sibling Rivalry Press. ISBN 978-1-937420-1, 185 pages.
Priscilla Atkins. The Café of our Departure. Sibling Rivalry Press. ISBN 978-1-937420-87-1, 77 pages.
Wendy Gist. Moods of the Dream Fog. Finishing Line Press, 29 pages.

Last year was a very productive year for non-traditional publishers addressing contemporary issues such as climate change and global warming and timeless personal ones such as the love and sudden loss of a friend or partner, or depicting their unique corner of the world. The four books I’ve chosen to review for AQ15 are concerned with some of the issues mentioned above and, because of that, I felt they were of sufficient merit to warrant a review in Amsterdam Quarterly.

The first book is Industrial Oz, Ecopoems by Scott T. Starbuck. Industrial Oz is a pro-ecology, anti-war, anti-banks, philosophical, counter-culture poetry book. In his essay, “The Defence of Poetry,” Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world….Poets … are not only the authors of language and of music, of the dance, and architecture, and statuary, and painting; they are the institutors of laws, and the founders of civil society…”

In Industrial Oz, Starbuck takes this charge very seriously. Industrial Oz depicts Starbuck’s many interests and concerns such as hiking, fishing, pollution, species extinction, rain forest destruction, global warming, the disposal of nuclear waste, the wisdom of indigenous peoples and their “pacification” by Europeans, the “taming” of the wilderness, the disappearing pensions of Generation X, and war’s effect on the “home front” including vets with PTSD and other disastrous, sociological and environmental problems. It asks and answers important questions such as how were the Americas “settled” by Europeans, how were its resources acquired and used and, as a result, what is the future of those continents and the planet?

Starbuck’s poems use various approaches, some more programmatic, others more aesthetic. Structurally and thematically Starbuck’s poems can sometimes be longer, somewhat political Ginsbergian riffs such as “Why All US-Made Nuclear Waste Must Be Stored At The White House” or “What if one Night a Big Solar Storm Went By?” Other times his images and examples or “evidence” are more subtle and his lines shorter, but all his poems are just as compelling. For example in “How It Is” the effect of global warming and its disastrous effect on coastal countries is rendered quite simply and geographically: “Sometimes you forget Greenland exists/…Then it melts and Holland disappears.” In “River Reflections” in just 46 words Starbuck’s discusses his own political stance—how politics considers him unimportant, how he has rejected TV, and the source of his power against the system. “Like the elk/my vote/won’t be heard” but the poem ends with the defiant: “I am a nonessential/ and unproductive/ worker// yet a threat/to the machine /merely by resting// and thinking.”

In his poem, “Thinking About the Association of Writers & Writing Programs 2014 Conference in Seattle,” he challenges the seeming non-awareness or lack of interest in academic programmes for environmental/political issues such as the death of sea stars and polar bear cubs due to climate change and the 100-tonne Fukushima nuclear storage tank spill which happened a week before this writers’ convention. (I remember getting feedback on my AIDS poems from professors and students in a mid-80s graduate writing programme and both parties wondering aloud if perhaps I wasn’t being a bit “hysterical” about an illness that might not turn out to be so serious). As an image of these programmes solipsistic and incorrect focus, Starbuck describes how as a child he carved sand circles: “for onlookers to enjoy//before the next set of waves erased everything.” Some other poems, such “Poem for Ishi” and “Of Whales and the Hinckley Hunt on Christmas Eve, 1818,” could also be used in secondary and tertiary, cross-curriculum writing and history classes related to questions about what happened to Americas’ indigenous peoples and its wildlife after their “discovery” and the “pacification” of the Americas by Europeans.

Throughout all the poems in Industrial Oz, though, no matter what their format, the central thread is Starbuck’s love and concern for the wilderness and the Earth. And in that light, all of the poems in Industrial Oz are worth reading if you share Starbuck’s concern for the future of mankind and the planet.

Next follow two elegiac books published by Sibling Rivalry Press that use two different approaches to chart the writers’ grief as they remember/memorialise a loved one. The first book, Erebus, is about someone killed in a plane crash, the second, The Café of our Departure, about the memory of someone who was slowly slipping away with cancer, who, in the end, decided to take his own life. Both depict the haunting that memory creates due to a desire to try to hold on to some part of these people’s lives and their relationship with the narrator in the past and carry it into the present and future. However, the two employ different, stylistic approaches. The first uses a more objective, factual, and scientific approach in its recapitulation of the relationship and attempted recovery of the person. The second uses a more aesthetic approach using art, museums and food to try to remember an almost life-long friendship.

The first book is Jane Summer’s Erebus. Erebus is the most southern, active volcano in the world, located in the Antarctic continent. In Greek mythology it is also the entrance to the underworld. What Moby Dick is to whaling with its catalogue of sails and harpoons, Erebus is to fatal, exotic sightseeing plane crashes. It is a well-written, obsessive, extended catalogue of grief about the crash—a history of what was taken suddenly—the passengers’ lives—and what was returned much later—some exposed bodies or parts and personal belongings including some, ironically unspoilt, colour photobooks of Antarctica and passengers’ journals.

Erebus has three, formal chronological divisions or parts entitled: 2013, 1993, and 1973 in which the writer works backwards to her relationship with the plane crash victim, Kay Barnick in New York City in the early ’70s. In the preface, Summer warns that “this story is based in fact…but it is above all a work of art, and thus a certain amount of leeway must be allowed.” Throughout the three sections, Erebus’ two-line lyric stanzas bind and build on the effect of information from news stories, photos, aircraft, airports, Antarctic geography, maps, wildlife pictures, notes left behind by her dead friend, a quotation from Aristotle’s The Neomachian Ethics about friendship, items of New Zealand history and culture (including James Cook’s “discovery” of the island), Summer’s implication of a possible airline cover up related to the crash, white flight and increased crime in Manhattan in the late ’70s, an equation of the deadly g-forces exerted on bodies of those in the unsurvivable crash and lastly, a list of all passengers and crew to tell a chilling and unrelenting tale of an airline catastrophe and the loss of a loved one. Using this method, Erebus, as an artistic creation, is certainly worth more than the sum of its parts.

The second book, Priscilla Atkins’ elegiac book, The Café of our Departure choses a different strategy. The Café of our Departure is also divided into three unnamed sections with an epigram from James Schuyler’s “The Morning of the Poem.” This poetry remembers a loved one from a much more epicurean perspective based on art, good friendship and food and poetry. The book describes Atkin’s gay, high school boyfriend and later, former husband, Mike, including his slow death from cancer and his choice to end his own life. The poems include references to their favourite cafes and restaurants “Unguided tour of Grief with Green Wallpaper,” museums “Resolve,” art “La Nature Morte” and “Sky in a Jar,” and photographs “First Trip to Chicago After” interspersed with teenage adventures of buying greasy fast food and fishing trips in “Mike,” a reconstruction of Mike’s suicide in “Resolves” and many references to the poetry of James Schuyler, which I imagine both the writer and the subject greatly admired.

Another aspect about this book that is exceptional is Atkins’ honesty as she courageously describes her ex-husband’s impending fatal illness/suicide and his changing role in her later life as they became more aware of his sexual orientation. Her acceptance and depiction of Mike’s gay “friend” Mark, is also exceptional as shown in the poem, “Anything You Want.” “Before heading downstairs/Mark said: “Take anything you want.” Atkins writes that amidst the stacks of Fiestaware, the “Shirts, slacks hanging in the closet;/rows of empty shoes” all she wants to do is to: “lie in your bed/and keep watch/.”

Throughout the book, Atkins uses different poetic forms—from two-line stanzas and traditional four-line quatrains to longer free-form stanzas. All include Atkins attention to detail to and objects such as in her poem entitled “Mike” in which she references death in the beginning but also the fun and companionship they experienced as teenagers: “Only you and I would be giddily/in overalls digging out/petrified worms (from the last trip)…For an entire year, we snorted/like Lily Tomlin’s Ernestine. (Pity the poor teachers/who had us in class together)./Summer days we’d drive your parents’/ car all over hell and back/…—but mostly to laugh and talk, to get the/feeling you get after doing that for hours.” Due to this wide span of time and poetic forms, The Café of our Departure is a fitting and moving memorial to her former friend and husband.

Wendy Gist’s Moods of a Dream Fog chapbook contains poems that describe the people and landscapes of the American Southwest some of which were previously published in more than 14 different literary journals, including Amsterdam Quarterly. Gist is not only adept in her selection of images but also in her use of different types of typography and lines. Sometimes she keeps her lines short and lets them float down the page as in “Drip Wish”

The woman peers
       out the
                  tent screen,
                           looking,
                     flat
on her backbone,
      at bloat between
monolithic
         slot of volcanic
                    tuff

Other times she writes moving block prose poems, such as “Visitor at Tsaile Lake” and “Morning Beat.” My other favourites in this collection include “Canyon de Chelly Echoes” which uses repetition to recreate the indigenous American ritual very effectively, and “Midsummer Night at Isotopes Park,” which includes this fine stanza, is a very poetic and sociological, contemporary description of Southwestern culture:

“Fine men I so love, husband and son, grub nachos, imbibe
pricey beer. Fun-loving women fork strawberries and kiwis
from fruit cups, sip Blue Moon draft, turn tipsy to us, laugh,”

For me, however, the short erotic poems including “Blush” and the title poem “Passion Fog” are the most arresting. “Passion Fog” explores both the light and dark sides of attraction and why one should be careful: “She can’t tell/up till now/if he strives to bite/or kiss tender.” Unfortunately these poems are not at the very beginning of the chapbook where I would have placed them, but come after “To My Dream,” “Intimate Waters,” “Electrolysis of Love” and “Winter Walk through Twilight” which don’t seem to resonate with me as much as the other 23 poems, but then a score of 19 out of 23 isn’t bad either. Gist’s Moods of a Dream Fog poetry chapbook is a good, strong entry in the world of first chapbooks. I recommend it especially for readers interested in poems about love, passion, relationships and the landscapes and cultures of the Southwestern US.

Bryan R. Monte – AQ15 Spring 2016 Art Reviews

AQ15 Spring 2016 Art Reviews
by Bryan R. Monte

Living in the Amsterdam School. Amsterdam Stedelijk Museum, 7 April to 28 August 2016
Document Nederland: Carel van Hees fotografeert het onderwijs. Rijksmuseum, 24 March to 12 June 2016

Living in The Amsterdam School

If you’ve ever wondered what happened when the optimistic, fin de siècle, organic Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau movements crashed into the trenches of the First World War, visit the Living in the Amsterdam School exhibition now at Amsterdam’s Stedelijk museum. This carefully-researched exhibition will show you the lavish interiors created as these movements entered the dark, expressionist wood created by this Dutch movement (1910-30). And since this exhibition concentrates on carefully reconstructed interiors and objects, the visitor is able to get a feel for what it was like to live in a stylish 1920s Amsterdam home, work in an office or shop at some of the Netherlands’ most prominent department stores.

Instead of seeking solace in the simple, natural forms as the Arts & Crafts/Art Nouveau movement had done, the Amsterdam School sought escapism and adventure in the exotic possibly as a reaction, but also perhaps as a precursor of the coming financial and political disasters. Characteristics of the Amsterdam School include unusual use of colour (red, orange, and yellow detailing on dark backgrounds), unusual wood detailing and carvings and exotic influences and designs. It’s worth visiting this collection of Amsterdam School artwork because as director Beatrix Ruf said at the press conferences it “is the largest ever assembled.”

The exhibitions first gallery includes a pyramidal display of the distinctive somewhat-tear-shaped clocks (similar in shape to Amsterdam School building towers) in various but mostly dark woods with orange, red and black accents. This is part of the 300 clocks collected for the exhibition and which also mimic the shape of the tops of the towers of the Amsterdam School buildings where mainly large, exterior clocks of similar design were displayed. (One design in particular, by Hildo Krop, contains long, thin, seated memento mori figures at the top of each clock). This gallery’s exhibition is also augmented (as in some others) by a film, music or video. (In this gallery, it is a silent film about Amsterdam School architecture exteriors).

The next gallery includes the reconstruction of an office with a large table and several very solid chairs and coffee table (One needed a very strong back to move this characteristically heavy massieve furniture) Further galleries include furniture for the home including first living, dining and bed rooms including photos of some of their occupants involved in various activities such as knitting next to the hearth, reading, etc. The dark wood furniture in this collection, some by Peter Lodewijk Kramer, creates a very den-or cave-like interior. A notable exception to this a suite of black and white bedroom furniture by Joseph Crouwel which stunningly presages the streamlined clean lines of Art Deco.

Another aspect of the Amsterdam School included in this exhibition is sculpture including the Modernist looking Girl (three-quarter figure) sculpture and the cast concrete Man with Wings (who looks more like a demon with wings from The Lord of the Rings) both by John Rädecker. Hildo Krop is also represented by his wood closets with wooden sculptures both above and in the cornices. Some of Krop’s work can also be found today on some of the city centre’s sculptured bridge pillars.

The exoticism of the Amsterdam School movement is given further explanation by its use in film theatres and department stores. In the 1920s, going to these two buildings was a type of escape, the first for a new form of entertainment—film, the second to a sort of retail adventure. These are demonstrated for example, by photos of the Tuschinski theatre’s Pieter den Besten’s native American designs (mural and lamp) and in The Hague’s Bijenkorf department store’s by two, giant, dark-wood, carved staircase padauks with details of flautists, a harpist and theatre masks by H. A. van de Einde. Toordorp is also represented by an expressionist (almost ’60s hippieish) brightly-painted wooden changing screen.

The last three galleries include even more gems. In the antepenultimate gallery, objects are displayed on shelves similar to those used in depots. These objects include firescreens, ceramics, a cradle, and an exquisite chest of drawers by Louis Bogtman of batik-patterned wood and wrought-iron from a private collection which demonstrates how Eastern styles affected the Amsterdam School.

The penultimate room in the exhibition has dozens of characteristically tear-shaped, dark, metal, hanging electric lamps demonstrating the new influence electricity was having on home interiors. Across from the lamps are distinctive stained-glass windows for both commercial and home use.

The exhibit’s final room contains a collection of Amsterdam School exhibition posters of shows, revivals and retrospectives. In the centre of the room is a red, yellow and white bedside table by Hildo Krop, which looks strikingly similar to the simple angular, Mondrian-coloured Modernist furniture made by Gerrit Rietveld. It demonstrates how Dutch interior design and this long-lived, multi-media artist (1884-1970) reinvented themselves again in the 1930s.

There’s probably something to satisfy everyone’s interest in early 20th Dutch interiors from chairs, tables, sofas, beds, desks, paintings, rugs, lamps, windows, posters, art magazines, photos, film, video and music. Visitors with children will probably be grateful for the “Build Your Own Clock” hands-on activity area, about two-thirds of the way through the exhibition, for visitors with children. Here children can construct and customize (detail and colour) their own Amsterdam School style clock. There are three different styles (5 minutes for the easiest, 15 for the most difficult). The clockworks, however, must be purchase downstairs at museum shop.

Even though Dr. Marjan Groot spent 10 years researching and collecting the Living in the Amsterdam School’s over 500 objects, gallery visitors are not overwhelmed by either too many objects or too much information. Her selection provides a rich overview that is exhaustive but not exhausting for the visitor. It is both scholarly and tasteful and the perfect length for a morning or afternoon museum visit.

Document Nederland

Document Nederland is a series of approximately 180 photos of the Dutch educational system in Rotterdam, by Rotterdam photographer and filmmaker Carel van Hees, currently on display at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. This series is a year-long, longitudinal, photographic documentation of Rotterdam’s educational system from infants school to university and is part of a larger series of photographic documentation, which was begun in the mid-1970s which has almost annually documented changing or controversial aspects of Dutch culture such as unemployment, elections, the broadcasting media, youth, post-WWII neighbourhoods, healthcare, refugees among other topics. The exhibition was given an enthusiastic introduction by Rijksmuseum director, Wim Pijbes. Pijbes also mentioned the unusual way Van Hees’ poster-size photos of the Dutch educational system are presented by the Rijks—in lightweight frames, which visitors can page through. In addition, these photos are illuminated by spotlights hung above in an otherwise darkened room which this reviewer found a very compact, yet intimate way to present such a large collection.

Van Hees’ photos capture Rotterdam’s educational institutions as modern, constructive and multi-cultural. Hees’ photos of the RDM Campus Albeda College welders show the strength and beauty of two young men whose dirty, heavy protective clothing—helmet, steel-toed shoes, fireproof gloves and aprons—reminds me of Lewis Hine’s iconic Powerhouse Mechanic Working on Steam Pomp (1920) or his 1930s Empire State Building girder riveters. It’s understandable why this photo was used to promote the Document Nederland series.

This static photo is contrasted by another more lively group of predominantly female, shipping and cruise school students (Scheepsvaart en Transport College) in their dark blue, uniform dresses clumped together and bursting with laughter whilst their two male colleagues or instructors remain (shyly?) almost hidden in the background. Van Hees’ photos also document constants in the Dutch educational system such as student teacher conferences at the elementary OBS Bloemhof and secondary OSG Hugo de Groot and graduation ceremonies at the polytechnic Zuiderpark VMBO and Erasmus University, where the facial emotions and intensity of interaction are the same and only the size of the desks and types of gowns are different.

Van Hees’ photos reveal the Dutch educational system’s merocratic aspiration to be open and accessible to all classes, races and genders. When asked during the press conference which of his photos he found the most iconic of the Dutch educational system 2016, Van Hees directed me to two, large portrait photos presented side by side in the gallery. One was of a student in coat and tie from the prestigious Ermaains Gymnasium. The other was of a student in an orange worksuit from the Zuiderpark VMBO. Van Hees’ commented in a brief interview (to be presented in AQ15 next month) that although the two young men both came from “two different educational programs, (they) were still two fellow citizens from the big city.”

Carel van Hees at Document Nederland: Carel van Hees fotografeert het onderwijs exhibition, March 2016, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam. Photo Copyright © 2016 by Bryan R. Monte.

Carel van Hees at Document Nederland: Carel van Hees fotografeert het onderwijs exhibition, March 2016, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam. Photo Copyright © 2016 by Bryan R. Monte.

The art of Van Hees’ photos is indeed his excellent portraiture of these students’ world whether he captures them in class, socializing in groups, with boy/girlfriends, sitting alone or sometimes even anonymously from behind, their clothing, hairstyles and posture still revealing something about their backgrounds and outlook.

That said, my one criticism of Van Hees’ photographic series is even though he was given permission to restrict himself to Rotterdam, in doing so, he missed documenting some pressing issues in rural areas such as the closing of small, local elementary schools and/or the lack of high-speed internet for some of these schools which is also a concern for the Dutch educational system albeit a minority and a peripherally geographic one.

This criticism aside, however, Van Hees provides an excellent overview of the Dutch, urban educational system anno 2016. He shows young people from infants to university in all social and economic groups in class and socializing with their peers. The value of these photographs is not only as a historical document, but also as sensitive, moment opnamen as Van Hees referred to them, in which he has captured the students’ hopes, fear, frustrations, activities and achievements artfully.

In addition to Van Hees’ photoseries, the photographic work of ten, secondary school finalists in the Jong Nederland competition that Van Hees judged were on display at the Rijksmuseum’s Teekenschool (which I was surprised to discover was older than Amsterdam’s own Rietveld Art Academy, and in fact, actually gave birth to this institution). Sashia de Boer (Het Lyceum, Alkmaar) won the Document Junior photo competition for her series of retro-punk photos shot in vintage ‘70s clothing against ’70s-style school backgrounds captured in the stylistic black and white photographic grittiness of that era. She will participate in a six-month internship with Van Hees at the Rijksmuseum before, according to Van Hees, going on to study at the Rietveld Academy.

Two other students whose work I feel is also worth mentioning is that of Rosalie van der Does (Wassenaarse Adelbert College) and Joelle Tahapary (Kalsbeek College, Woerden). Van Der Does, who took her national, second-form finals at 19 due to a disability, shows the challenges she faced in her photographs, especially one in which she appears to be standing still and everyone around her moving so quickly that they’re blurred and another in which she lying down, eyes closed, her right hand covering the right side of her face. On the other hand, Tahapary’s photos are abstract, kaleidoscopic and look somewhat like modern stained-glass windows. All ten sets of finalists’ photos on display at the Rijkmuseum’s Teekenschool document successfully the creativity engendered by the Dutch educational system in general and by this Jong Nederland competition, specifically.

Bryan R. Monte – (AQ14) Autumn 2015 Museum Review

Zero—Let Us Explore The Stars Exhibition, Amsterdam Stedelijk Museum   7 July to 8 November 2015
by Bryan R. Monte

If you are in Amsterdam on a rainy afternoon and the lines at the Van Gogh Museum and the Rijksmuseum both wind down the street, may I suggest a visit to the Amsterdam Stedelijk Museum’s, Zero— Let Us Explore The Stars special exhibition. Even though I thought I was fairly well versed in “Modern” art, I was surprised last July to attend the press opening for a retrospective of an art movement about which I had no previous knowledge.

Zero is an exhibition about a group of optimistic, future-oriented, European (Dutch, French, German, Italian and Swiss) artists, who, in the 1950s and early ’60s, used simple, cheap, monochromatic and sometimes recycled materials in novel ways including puncturing, (Henk Peters), cutting and burning, (Otto Piene), mounting or stacking (Amando and Jan Henderiske) or just painting and/or displaying found objects (Jan Schoonhoven).

Zero artists (or spouses) with the Zero Manifesto on wall behind them at the Amsterdam Stedelijk Museum, (4 July 2015). Back row l. to r.: Elizabeth Goldring Piene, Christian Megert, Jan Henderikse and unidentified woman. Front row l. to r.: unidentified man, herman de vries and Uli Pohl.

Zero artists (or spouses) with the Zero Manifesto on wall behind them at the Amsterdam Stedelijk Museum, (4 July 2015). Back row l. to r.: Elizabeth Goldring Piene, Christian Megert, Jan Henderikse and unidentified woman. Front row l. to r.: unidentified man, herman de vries and Uli Pohl.

Just as with any new movement when people are experimenting with materials, some were more successful than others. Henk Peter’s Aquarel (1966, 2014 reconstruction), a wall of water-filled, triangular-shaped plastic bags filled and hung against a black background and illuminated by spotlights was for me the simplest yet most memorable work in the exhibition. The 20 rows of perfectly aligned bags of water catch the light in such a way that they actually shine against the black wall. Followed closely thereafter would be Yoyao Kusama’s One Thousand Boat Show (1963) a boat made of what looks like white stones, with hundreds of identical smaller images of the same boat projected around it, which seems to float in the room. And a third work would be Jan Schoonhoven’s R 62-16 (1962) mentioned above which, once painted white and mounted, shows the simplicity and the restful rhythm of its repeated structure.

Less successful in my opinion, however, are Amando’s tires mounted on a wall, Guenther Uecker’s chairs or TV sets with nails pounded in their sides or Jan Henderiske’s beer crate or cork sculptures, which although most students are accustomed to stacking crates in their rooms to make cheap shelving, I wouldn’t particularly call that art. In the same vein, herman de vries’ white, seemingly architectural, model building blocks don’t move me as much as Otto Pien’s perforated metal drum with its rotating internal light source that casts changing, expanding and deflating geometric images on the surrounding walls. Similarly the optical illusions that would come later in the sixties are preceded by works such as François Morellet’s, Sphère-trames, stainless-steel sculpture (1962) or the more dynamic optical illusions (albeit monochromatic ones) created by Günther Uecker’s, Heinz Mack’s and Otto Peine’s Lightroom gallery: Homage to Fontana (1964).

Some of Zero’s real treasures, however, are reserved for almost last. Two galleries to the left of the entrance hall (the last two if you follow the map provided by the museum) is a room of Zero videos. The best of these are the nude body painting performance art of Yves Klein with a live, seated audience and string quartet accompaniment in addition to Heinz Mack’s silver spaceman clothing, tall poles hung with round and banner-like silver reflecting material which seems set on another planet rather than on a North Sea beach. The former clearly seems to pre-date the later sexually-free counter-culture happenings that would take over campuses and the art world just a few years later.

Even if its sunny outside, I’d still recommend you take a break from the crowds on the Museumplein and use the opportunity to learn more about a relatively unknown (for me) 1950s and early ’60s European art movement which was the historical predecessor of the optically illusionary and happenings art of later ‘60s and early ‘70s. I guarantee your time at the Stedelijk will be well spent.

Bryan R. Monte – (AQ14) Autumn 2015 Book Reviews

AQ14 Autumn 2015 Book Reviews
by Bryan R. Monte

Nights at Rizzoli by Felice Picano. O/R Books, ISBN 978-1-939293-67-1, 224 pages.
The Don’t Touch Garden by Kate Foley. Arachne Press. ISBN 978-1-909208-19-3, 61 pages.
The Magic Laundry by Jacob M. Appel. Snake Nation Press, ISBN 978-0-9883029-9-0, 134 pages.
When I was a Twin by Michael Klein, Sibling Rivalry Press, ISBN 978-1-937420-91-8, 63 pages

My mailbag was much heavier this summer due to readers’ responses to my short, diaried memoir of Philip Levine and the books I received from publishers and authors. I have had plenty to read and I have selected one memoir, one book of short stories and two books of poetry to review for a good mix of genres.

The memoir, Nights at Rizzoli by former New Yorker and now Southern California resident, Felice Picano, is a small, handsome book with beautiful cover art—NYC building fronts (front) and artists, (back) by Max Wittert. It describes Picano’s work at the Rizzoli bookstore in “snotty, pushy, Upper Midtown Fifth Avenue” (across from Tiffany’s) in the 1970s, the store’s multi-national, polyglot staff and their celebrity customers. These included among others Mick Jagger, Philip Johnson, Salvador Dali, Rose Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Picano presents most of these encounters with celebrities as things that just happened to him, not meetings he sought since he fails to recognize both Kennedys until well into their first meetings and, in fact, he turns down a date with Johnson at his “nine-room penthouse suite overlooking the city.” Then there are the more unusual encounters such as the man who was building a new house in Montana who asked Picano one evening for suggestions on what sorts of books he should stock there to make his artist guests feel at home. Seven thousand dollars worth of books later, Picano helped him find an answer.

At his job interview, Picano is asked to make suggestions on how the store can improve its sales—“get more intellectuals and college students coming in…by offering Garcia Marquez, Octavio Paz, Lezema Lima.” Rizzoli continues to expand as Felice convinces the store manager, Mr. M., to display English-language, best-seller books in the store more prominently, especially Jaws for which Picano makes a special poster composed of “a pair of snorkel goggles I owned, splashed…with nail polish and added in my old rubber swim fins…chewed up with a box cutter.” Picano also assists in setting up Rizzoli’s art gallery next door whose opening features Erté’s work and includes the appearance of the legendary dancer, Josephine Baker, who arrives in a white Rolls Royce.

In addition to his bookstore duties, Picano also describes his activities as a nascent gay activist, as the leader of the Purple Quill gay men’s writers group and as a volunteer in an ad hoc vigilante squad through which on “Thursday(s)” from “midnight to 3 A.M.” he protected the gays and their suburban daddies who had sex in the empty meat and produce trucks parked “beneath what was left of the elevated West Side Highway” from teenage gangs from “the projects above 14th St.” Picano’s partner in this squad was an Afro-American transexual called Marsha Johnson who “kept three sharpened-to-stiletto-point Afro combs in her big “do.”” Picano’s memoir takes you close to the action—physical, historical and sexual. His writing style is very clean and his description has just the right number of details to place his reader firmly in the milieu making his memoir not only informative, but also entertaining.

The second book is The Magic Laundry by Jacob M. Appel. This collection represents his third prize for fiction writing in about a year. Winner of the Serena McDonald Kennedy Fiction Award, The Magic Laundry is a collection of eight interesting and quirky short stories. By accident, I was sent a few extra copies. Appel wrote that I could keep the copies for myself. I wrote him, however, that I would give them to my workshop students with the adage: “This is how you write good short stories!”—and that’s true. These stories are composed of characters from many walks of life all dealing with life’s unexpected twists and turns—from within or without—a university professor and Darwin descendant, whose daughter returns home at X-mas break with an orang-utan she liberated from her university’s animal laboratory, a Turkish watchmaker in Brooklyn who decides to join the fight against the construction of a sports facility in his neighbourhood because leading the charge is a very attractive woman only to discover, accidentally, that he has a talent for public-speaking and politics, and the cover story about a man who wants a nice, quiet job so he can study the classics and play baseball, whose parents set him up in the coin laundry business whose machines mysteriously seem to heal people’s ailments, creating problems with his customers and competitors. This collection marks the post-Modernist end of the Hemingway code where heterosexual men avoid “talky time.” Appel’s main characters are well-rounded, articulate (at least internally) and caught in multi-tiered conflicts, whose outcomes this reader usually found (seven out of eight times) delightfully unexpected. If you want to know more about how to write contemporary fiction, read this book.

Even though the old adage goes: “Never judge a book by its cover” the cover of Michael Klein’s new poetry book, When I Was A Twin, is certainly very attractive. Looking like “Wolverine goes to Fire Island,” Klein stands tall on the front cover with his brushed back hair and beard and big hands, wearing a P-coat on a wooden boardwalk which winds out towards the ocean. This is another exquisite cover from Sibling Rivalry Press—cover photos and art by Shef Reynolds; cover design by Seth Pennington.

The poem “Harmonium” begins this collection. It’s a haunting update about what has changed in the poet’s world and life (with a reference to Allen Ginsberg’s trademark harmonium playing at his readings) since the death of the person to whom it is addressed. The poet mentions Bruce/Caitlan Jenner’s transition, gay marriage, not going to cinemas anymore to watch films and: “Websites: So many websites like radium./There’s a website that consists entirely of lists/Whenever I look at a list with names on it/I think of death and awards.” With this poem, Klein deftly introduces the three subjects—death and lists and fame—which his book explores throughout.

His structural alternation of block prose poems with more experimental list poems, whose imagistic links change sometimes from line to line, and his use of these two forms to explore subjects such as film, theatre, actors, actresses, and horse racing, caught and kept my interest through the entire book. And the list poems with their fast changing-linking-build-your-own-narrative, rather than covering up or confusing the subjects actually strips away and clarifies them. Klein, like Trinidad in this issue, also has a poem about 9/11, “The planes I said and then the nothing afterwards,” which describes the cruel chance that determined who survived that day: “Did they ask for more/living at the intersection of alive and not living?” and the bewilderment of those survivors who lived to see the disaster wrought by Hurricane Sandy a few years later: “And now, or just last week, more disaster: the predicted water/took up something furious to wreck the houses down in Queens.”

But it is the sorrow for a sibling slowly drowning in depression at a distance which is the main theme of this book, an experience rendered painfully accurate in “The Motivation of an Actor”

….I watched my brother live, but couldn’t touch the flame around his life. And I didn’t want to be absorbed by art. I didn’t trust art to throw me back….

Klein’s poetic rendering of his relationship with his twin brother rings, unfortunately, very true to my own with a schizophrenic, artistic relative.

And I do have another confession to make. Even though I’m gay, I must admit I have more of an affinity for Klein’s poems about horses “Other Horses” (experimental poem) and “The Lives of Horses” (prose poem) than for those about the theatre and film, “Music for the Theater” and “Giuliette Masina” having gone yearly to watch a cousin compete in the equestrian arena at the state fair. I do still, however, enjoy Klein’s list poems such as “Things that Might Be True” and “The Medium” having also started to write my own series about past boyfriends and therapists and why things went wrong.

When I was a Twin is a book of well-written poems, some more challenging and experimental than others. (which, in my opinion, is exactly what a poetry book should offer). I think readers will experience much leesplezier (reading pleasure) as we say in Dutch from this thin volume of poetry, which I wholeheartedly recommend.

Last is a poetry book by British-born, Amsterdam resident and local treasure, Kate Foley. The Don’t Touch Garden is a compilation of poems from six of Foley’s previous books. These poems are about birth, adoption, childhood, family and and the search, albeit too late, for one’s biological parent. This new edition of these poems by Arachine Press is bound in a cover which includes a photo of a garden with a gate and a bench which, despite the book’s title, seems to welcome one in. This book, like Klein’s, is small enough to fit into a coat pocket and is the type of book I would read and meditate on when I was younger as I wandered around my town “looking for the trapdoor out of suburbia.” In “Bison” Foley comments on her almost lifelong lack of knowledge of her biological parents: “My pre-history is as blank as a people without pots/or bones.” Or with advancing age, suddenly finding our parents in the mirror as we begin to resemble them unwittingly physically and psychologically. The poem “Paradox” also discusses this voyage of discovery of parentage: “Mirror, mirror on the wall/the old joke goes/I am my mother after all.//but which ?” It also illustrates her advice in the introduction to this volume: “to parent the face we find in the mirror.” It is a brave book, which recreates what some children growing up were probably told to (and would like to forget), but which others feel impelled to explore to understand who they really are.

The Don’t Touch Garden includes poems about war-time Britain, (the title poem being the longest and the most interesting in this collection to me due to its historical nature), poems about young parents, “Corchipoo,” (including a young child overhearing her parents having sex) and an abusive, adoptive uncle “The Man on the Bike.” In this poem, the adoptive mother asks: “Tell me! What did he say?”//She means ‘What did he do?’” The tensions between wondering about who her birth parents were, to trying to find a place in a home where she doesn’t seem to fit due to her expanding poetic perception and her parents’ more restricted worldview (whom she takes care of as they age) continues throughout the book including the poem, “The End of a Long Conversation” where Foley meditates on her parents’ death and final separation without a proper good-bye. The Don’t Touch Garden is small, beautiful, thought-provoking book, which should be in every English-language collection about adoption and searching for one’s true parentage.

Bryan R. Monte – AQ13 Summer 2015 Book Reviews

AQ13 Summer 2015 Book Reviews
by Bryan R. Monte

Einde verhaal/End of Story by Philibert Schogt, Arbeiderspers, ISBN 978-90-295-3903-6, 2015, 344 pages.
Poor Advice by Lou Gaglia. Spring Up Mountain Press, ISBN 978-0-9863490-0-3, 2015, 216 pages.
The Best Women’s Travel Writing (vol. 10) edited by Lavinia Spalding. Travelers Tales, ISBN 978-1-60952-098-4, 2014, 305 pages.

This issue includes reviews of three books which I feel are guaranteed to provide AQ’s readers with enjoyable summer reading. The first is a novel, Einde verhaal/End of Story by Amsterdam’s Anglo-Dutch writer, Philibert Schogt. The second, Poor Advice, a collection of short stories by American writer, Lou Gaglia, and the third, The Best Women’s Travel Writing, Volume 10, a collection of women’s travel essays, edited by Lavinia Spalding.

Einde verhaal/End of Story is Schogt’s fifth novel, (the fourth published by the Arbeiderspers). It is the bilingual story of John or Johan Butler, an emigre Dutch-Canadian translator who lives in a little village just north of Amsterdam who is about to retire until he receives one last, controversial and potentially dangerous assignment. Butler, who has lived in the Netherlands for the last 20 years, receives the assignment to publish Tobey Quinn, a famous American novelist’s latest nover of the same title into Dutch. Since this novel contains a passage in which the God takes part in a celestial talent contest with Charles Darwin and the devil and loses, however, Quinn, Quinn’s publisher and ultimately Butler all receive death threats from a fundamentalist, Christian preacher—End of Story—end of you!” John/Johan Butler, nonetheless, translates the first chapter and when things heat up, travels back to Canada to his parents holiday camp, Butler’s Hideaway, near Algonquin Park for his own safety, to meet Quinn and to confront his Dutch-Canandian background which he abandoned twenty years previously when he decided to move to the Netherlands temporarily with his girlfriend Cindy for a year. After one year became two and two years two decades and John/Johan fell in love with and impregnated his publisher’s assistant for whom he was doing translation work, John/Johan’s stay finally became permanent.

But death threats and infidelity are just minor parts of this novel which is really about growing up bi-lingual and the type of cerebral and thus emotional attachment conflicts it creates. The protagonist is not one person but two—John in English and Johann in Dutch. And the novel is written in two languages—English to tell mostly John’s point of view and Dutch to reveal Johan’s. In addition, in the more epistolary English sense, John’s English part is told in the first person, whilst Johan’s more emotionally reserved Dutch part is told in the third person. As a result of this, the two parts of the story are not parallel. John tells much more about his sexual exploits on a secluded Canadian island with his high school girl friend who accompanies him to the Netherlands for 20 years, than his Dutch alter-ego ever does. Johan is also much more in love with his 20 year younger wife, his two daughters and his idyllic life in the village of Holysloot just North of Amsterdam, its back garden draped in apple blossoms, than his alter-ego John who writes his memoirs whilst Johan sleeps and who wants to return to Canada. It’s the death threat that finally tips the scales and enables John to drag Johan back to Canada to encounter the country where “they” both grew up which is now both familiar and foreign due to their 20 year absence. John/Johan also encounters many surprises towards the end of this story, which I will not give away, but which sustains the narrative suspense to the novel’s end.

This is a novel most bi- or polylingual writers, readers and artists will enjoy since its explains the cerebral bifurcation and emotional difficulties encountered by people raised in more than one culture and belonging wholly to none.

Lou Gaglia’s Poor Advice is a collection of humorous, entertaining short stories, set mostly in one of New York’s Italian-American neighbourhoods but occasionally branching out into other alternative settings. Due to his not-completely dependable narrators lack of education, however, they don’t always grasp the situations in which they find themselves. For example, the narrator in the title story goes to the opera alone after not being able to get up enough courage to ask a waitress out. He describes the interval of the opera as “half time” how he had trouble staying awake until:

Mimi went into one of those viscous coughing jags hacking up a storm while everyone, except the horses, looked on worried. Before she knew it, she was in bed dying, and the writer was bent over her, not even minding she was coughing in his face—a sure sign of true love when a girl can cough in a guy’s face and he doesn’t even flinch or get pissed.

Another interesting story is the surrealist “Tony, the Mustache,” during which a moustache is persistently worried about being shaved off because his wearer’s girlfriend doesn’t like the way he looks.

Tony lived in constant apprehension. As a result, he was a very jumpy mustache. He had horrible nightmares a few times a week, sometimes more….Tony could be described as a nervous wreck of a mustache, though his master would only refer to him as “this stupid mustache,” which sometimes left Tony depressed for days.

This narrative is even more interesting because not only does this moustache have consciousness, but it is also is able to talk to other moustaches it passes on the street.

“You look a little down in the bristles, Tone.” Ray said.
“I am.”
“Thinking about being shaved again?”
“What else?”
“Look. I told you. Stop reading that Satre.”
“I can’t help it. Anthony’s reading Being and Nothingness.
“You don’t have to read it. Curl your hairs.”

Although, many of these stories are satirical and/or humorous such as “Orca (A Madcap Thriller)” a satire of Jaws and “Days of Wine and Pratfalls,” about a waitress who infects her boyfriend with her clumbsiness as she learns to be graceful by practicing yoga, some stories such as “Little Leagues” and “This is my Montauk” delve into serious subjects such as the long-term effects of bullying and drugs in their narrators’ neighbourhoods. Both of these stories, due to their realism and candor are worth the sum of all the humour and entertainment in this book. Poor Advice is a fine, well-balanced, collection of short stories and comes with “A Reader’s Guide,” which could facilitate discussion of this book in secondary and tertiary educational settings. It is certainly one that will not disappoint recreational or academic readers.

The last book for the summer that I would like to recommend is Lavinia Spaulding’s The Best Women’s Travel Writing, Volume 10. I spent about a month reading one of these thirty-one travel vignettes each night before I went to sleep and enjoyed learning about travel and cultures from the Arctic “For the Sake of the Sin” (Norway) by Blare Braveman, and “Leader of the Pack” (Finland) by Peggy Orenstein to the tropics “Good is Coming” (India) by Angela Long, “Ashes over Havana” (Cuba) by Magda Montiel Davis and “Why did the American Cross the Road” (Vietnam) by Sarah Katin and the writers who describe the many countries in-between.

Many of these journeys are made by women with various goals in mind. Some are on errands, such as Davis in “Ashes over Havana,” where she first describes her frustration trying to get her father’s ashes back into the country he fled after the Cuba revolution and later trying to fulfill his wish to be strewn on the playing field of Havana’s baseball stadium. Due to the guards at the stadium’s entrance however, Magda decides to covertly deposit her father’s ashes outside of the stadium with an old friend, Ive, who has remained in Cuba since their childhood. Later at Havana’s seawall, she throws the last of her father’s ashes into the sea that separates Havana and Miami. But the ashes

…fly back inland, toward a pretty girl with brown skin kissing her boyfriend, a pretty brown girl now covered with my father’s ashes. Ive and I stare at each other. Ay, I say to the pretty brown girl’s boyfriend as he wipes the white off her face, her hair, her blouse, pernonanos. It’s O.K. he say, pronounced O-kah, the anti-imperalista, Revolutionary way…That’s O.K. I say….Dad’s happy going home with her tonight. He always liked brown-skinned girls best.

Other stories include accounts of women’s journeys made despite recent medical traumas or hardships and/or on-going disabilities. For example in “An Unwanted Guest” (Indonesia), Simone Girrindo describes not only the toll hiking through a Javan rainforest and a accidently stepping on a jelly fish took on her journey and her relationship, but also the added effect her chronic medical condition had on her own health and her relationship.

At home, my condition and his abilities had, somewhat magically, never been at odds, but here, the difference seemed stark and divisive. He belonged to the land of the healthy, where people move easily, their arms and legs vehicles that get them where they want to go. And I was on another island entirely, a place that, no matter how many times I circled it, offered no way off.

Many of the other stories in this collection describe women pushing themselves to their physical limits to discover and/or reclaim their bodies’ strength and resilience. This writing is also accompanied by a keen eye for the history and the culture of the people among which they are living. It is an excellent collection of travel essays, not only for women but also for men who want to share these women’s insights of their travels in different parts of the world.

Bryan R. Monte – AQ12 Spring 2015 Exhibition Reviews

AQ12 Spring 2015 Exhibition Reviews
by Bryan R. Monte

Ed Atkins, Recent Ouija Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam 21 February to 31 May 2015
Rembrandt van Rijn, Late Rembrandt, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam  12 February to 17 May 2015

Is Anyone There?

“Is anyone there?” was usually the first question asked at the beginning of a Ouija board game, played during adolescent sleepovers just before bed. Ouija is a game which requires the suspension of disbelief that one or more persons whose hands are resting on the planchette are not actually pushing it around the board to produce answers rather than supernatural powers. Recent Ouija is the name of Ed Atkins’(1982) has chosen for his one man, multi-media show held at Amsterdam’s Stedelijke Museum until 31 May 2015. The show in the museum’s basement is divided into nine spaces: #1 Warm, Warm, Warm Spring Mouths, 2013; #2 Counting 1, 2, 3,; 2014 #3 Bastard, 2014, #4 Ribbons, 2014; #5 Happy Birthday!!, 2014; #6 Untitled, 2015, #7 ‘No-one is more work than me’ flextime redux, 2014; #8 Even Pricks, 2013 and #9 Material Witness OR A Liquid Cop, 2012.

Gallery #1 features a computer generated model, one of Atkins’ avatars, which recites poety as its hair grows longer. One of the poems it recites (and one of the high points of this exhibition for me) is Gilbert Sorentino’s “The Morning Roundup” from his book, Corrosive Sublimate. Sorrentino’s meta-poetry and meta-fiction is intended to stand for itself with images that come fast and change quickly so that one must (at least partially) construct one’s own narrative to make sense of what is going on. (I was introduced to Sorentino’s work when I published my literary magazine, No Apologies, in San Francisco in the ’80s). Borrowing on Sorrentino’s modus operendi, Atkins offers meta-poetry and meta-imagery in his Recent Ouija paintings, video and audio pieces in which the visitor is to construct his/her own narrative. The Ouija effect, however of these installations (where meanings are to arise spontaneously as if created by the incorporeal other and not from the self as in when someone “consults” a Ouija board to find answers to questions) is not all that apparent to me nor was I surprised, perplexed, challenged, etc. by what I saw, heard or felt. In fact, the only image from Atkin’s work that momentarily startled me was on the cover of his Zürich/Mainz Kunsthallen/Julia Stoscheck Collection exhibition catalogue—that of a small hand grasping a much larger than scale thumb which momentarily appeared to me as another body appendage.

Perhaps it’s because I am aware of some of the sources of Atkins spoken or sung texts and visual iconography—classical music, advertising, postmodern poetry, gay culture, world events—that I readily made associations from my own experience or world events for his images and avatars so that this installation didn’t seem magical or its meanings did’t seem to come from unknown sources.

For example, the video of the male avatar in gallery #4 (Ribbons, 2014), naked and hiding under a café tables or shirtless with his head resting top of the café table, a cigarette burning to ash in his hand reminds me of Warmostraat backrooms from the 1990s and the Straight to Hell videos of a decade later, in which various straight-identified, young men were subjected to various sorts of gay sexual bondage and humiliating words for various bodily orifices or appendages were written on their heads. (Although the Internet is full of images and videos of many straight lager lads have also had some of written some of the same phrases on their foreheads of their inebriated, unconscious friends). However, I can’t remember too many of these young men with their heads on café tables singing “Erbarme dich, Mein Gott” (Have mercy upon me, My God) from J. S. Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion where Peter begs God tearfully for forgiveness for denying he knew Jesus thrice to save his own life. (Although this pairing of high-brow music with low-brow culture has also been used before in the film, Clockwork Orange, for example). Even the disembodied head in gallery #5 (Happy Birthday!!, 2014) with a bit of blood below its nose emploring: “Look at me, look at me!” and reassuring with: “It’s just a bit of blood” didn’t make me look or feel squeamish as I am of real blood. Thus, this technology and installation did not suspend my disbelief.

Perhaps for less literate, apolitical, twenty-something, virtual-native, X-box, thumb jockeys, these installations blur the distinction between fantasy and reality. But for this literate, political, 55+, virtual émigré (computer mainframe and personal computer user from 1984 onward), X-box virgin, I found Atkin’s Recent Ouija exhibition unsurprising and disappointing. I was always aware I was watching simulations, not reality. My senses were not tricked and delighted as they are when I viewed Rembrandt’s “The Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis” with its mysterious, phosphoric-yellow light that seems to radiate from the canvas itself or saw Stanley Kubrick’s ride through time in 2001, A Space Odyssey during which the double planes of speeding lights on the screen made my theatre seat seem to move. Perhaps if Mr Atkins had tried harder to merger high- and low-art as did Kubrick in Clockwork Orange, then his work would be more interesting to me and accessible to older audiences. In addition, if it were possible to talk or interact with the avatars and installations and not know if their answers were computer or human generated (someone behind a screen somewhere) then they would blur the barrier between physical and virtual reality which is the goal of Ouija. Instead, I feel Recent Ouija is a poor example of what a combination of more conventional art and music and modern virtual art and technology can offer.

The Old Man’s Still Got It

From a completely different era, another one man show, not more than a few hundred metres away, the Rijksmuseum’s Late Rembrandt tries to unlock the secrets of the great man’s last years by bringing back together prints, etchings, pen and ink and drypoint drawings and paintings from all around world (but mostly from the UK). These media help demonstrate Rembrandt’s virtuosity and inventiveness even in the last decade of his life including some exceptional portraits he painted in those years.

These different media have been hung together into galleries with the following themes: “From Life,” “Conventions,” “Emulation,” “Light,” “Experimental Technique,” “Intimacy,” “Contemplation,” “Inner Conflict” and “Reconciliation.” The temporarily assembled collection (this exhibition will hang for only 100 days) includes the addition of the life-size Portrait of Frederik Rihel on Horseback, 1663 two versions of Lucretia from 1664 and 1666, The Jewish Bride, (which according to Vincent Van Gogh, was Rembrandt’s masterpiece) and which hangs next to the Portrait of a Family, both from 1665 and sharing some of the same poses and hand gestures and, of course as previously mentioned, The Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis, 1661-1662 with its mysterious yellow light which seems to radiate from the canvas itself. With so many media and paintings from the same decade, this once-in-lifetime exhibit should have something for everyone interested in Rembrandt’s later life. A good guide for making your way through the galleries is the Rijksmuseum’s own pamphlet, Late Rembrandt, which individually names and describes all 105 items in the exhibition. This pamphlet can be found in a rack in the stairway beyond the lift in the “entrance” hall and is available for a free-will donation.

Despite the richness of this collection however, it’s shame that the galleries are so filled with people that it is difficult to see many of these masterworks, let alone move about. (Note: De Telegraaf, a Dutch national newspaper reported on 25 February, five days after my visit, that the number of visitors per two hour slot would be reduced from 1,500 to 1,000).

Hopefully, by reducing the number of people present by one-third, visitors will have more of a chance to view the masterworks and perhaps even sit down to contemplate some of them occasionally. Another problem, however, is that the etchings, drawings and prints, are hung at eye-level for visitors standing up. Those in wheelchairs have difficult viewing them even though the usual metal curbs have been removed in most places so it is possible to roll up right under them.

It’s unfortunate there wasn’t room available in the middle of the galleries to put these prints in glass cases, but of course, with the great number of visitors and the necessary safety precautions, this probably wasn’t feasible. Even with all the overcrowding, I’m sure visitors will see things they will remember and enjoy for years to come. However, they should also consider booking twice to come back and see what they’ve missed before this exhibition closes on 17 May 2015.