“The apparel oft proclaims the man”

In his advice about how best to make your way in the world, the Shakespearean character Polonius admonishes his son Laertes, “Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy, // But not express’d in fancy; rich, not gaudy; // For the apparel oft proclaims the man…” (Hamlet, I. iii.) Indeed we are visual creatures happily led through the world by wayfinding graphics (like man/female restroom icons), or tragically by racial profiling (we, of course, note the features of people we meet, but must ethically assess ascriptions we give them). And attire often provides a granular iconography that results in a sort of profiling; for instance, a man in an Armani suit, carrying a briefcase signals a businessman or lawyer, and given Armani, he likely would be profiled as “rich.”

Perhaps no one knows the power of apparel better than theatrical costume designers. On August 17th, Amanda McGee, resident costume designer for The Cincinnati Shakespeare Company (“Cincy Shakes”), gave a gallery talk about her designs for the season and new theatre opener, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, September 8-30. (Tickets available online.)

Amanda pointed out the inspiration, materials and color coding she used to visually cue the audience’s understanding of, reaction to and desires for the characters. She divided the play’s characters into 3 categories; the aristocratic-“Lovers”, the “Fairies” of the magic world, the peasant-“Mechanicals”.

The Lovers are costumed in Greco-Roman garb. The story concerns the magical scrambling of two couples’ romances and affections. The audience, however, always knows which pairing to root for by Amanda’s helpful color coding. Helena and Demetrius are in blue, Hermia and Lysander are in pink; thus, visually it looks wrong when the couples are scrambled. Amanda chose mid-century slips and tidy-whities for the intimate scenes, which foiled against the classical overclothes lends a timeless feel to the production. (She explained that Cincy Shakes only uses nudity as an artistic element if it is integral to the story, which is not the case here.)

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The Lovers wear color-coded Greco-Roman garb
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The Lovers “strip down” to mid-century undergarments

The Mechanicals are costumed in traditional Elizabethan garb, except that it is made with the iconic fabric of modern day labor—denim. Thus denim-blue is the color cue for the peasants.

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The Mechanicals appear in Elizabethan “jeans”

Amanda’s fairy aesthetic was inspired by 70s glam rock, epitomized by David Bowie. The costumes are as theatrical as those of that era, and incorporating today’s fibre optic and LED lighting. Titania will be as brightly lit as the moon she’s named for. Amanda derived inspiration for the magic from new age crystals and amethysts in particular—purple is the color Amanda chose to signify magic.

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Glam rock inspired fairies

Amanda mentioned that the make up for this production will be robust. Usually, actors play more than one character and their make-up has to multi-task, but in this production actors play only one character, so that their make-up can be completely idiosyncratic.

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Gestalt guidance for making up the magic world

Amanda ended her talk revealing a secret element that we cannot repeat. Suffice it to say, it is very low tech, but very high maintenance.

A special performance followed the talk. Lutenist Tina Gutierrez, who also is an exhibiting fine art photographer in the gallery’s current exhibit, played instruments hand crafted by her renowned luthier husband, Larry Brown. Tina accompanied tenor vocalist Ryan C. Connelly. They discussed peculiar challenges of the music, choice of instrument, unique tablature and they enthralled us with several pieces, including the song “The Cutpurse” about an Elizabethan pick-pocket, written by an anonymous English composer of the era. Shakespeare mentions cutpurses in several plays; it is interesting that this brand of criminality is so enduringly represented in the artistic production of the time.

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Tina Gutierrez, lutenist and exhibiting photographer, and Ryan C. Connelly, tenor

For the gallery’s current exhibit, “Midsummer Dreams|We Are Such Stuff,” we selected new work from Tina’s fine art photography portfolio that matched our impression of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “Decension,” below, reminded us of the fairy character Puck.  Ironically the model is adorned in a purple-ish color and gives an impression in keeping with Amanda’s conception of apt visual cues, similar to her inspiration pins above.

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Tina Gutierrez, “Decension” (from the re-Adorned series with fashion designer Da’Mon Butler), color pigment print, 30″ x 20″, $300
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Ryan C. Connelly, Tina Gutierrez, Amanda McGee, Larry Brown


“The apparel oft proclaims the man”

Is It Art?

Master Harold what is art excerptIMAG5839_1(Excerpt from Athol Fugard’s play, “Master Harold”…and the boys)

This question spawns other questions of categorization (Is it fine art?) and particularization (What is creativity?), and so on. In other words, any answer leads to more questions, without complete resolution.

Many have concluded simply that art cannot be defined. Modern art philosopher, Morris Weitz, concluded that there is no essence to artwork of itself. He suggested that what makes a work “art” is based upon its resemblance to other works or paradigms that have been decided upon as “art.” He notes that to give an essential definition of “art” would inescapably rule out art-making as a creative activity because future works would be limited to the definition. But isn’t his “resemblance” qualifier just as limiting? And the context that decided prior works to be art hopefully changes so that the conditions that determined “art” at one point are not there at the next. Even “art” that seemingly transcends trendiness, may simply be a persistent trend dependent on enough universal conditions that have not remarkably changed—yet. Just as we think of cave paintings more as artifacts of our early ancestors than as “art,” distant generations living in an entirely different context may one day deem the Mona Lisa a similar curiosity.

Weitz and other anti-essentialism art philosophers dismiss even the act of making as a qualifier, Weitz giving the example that an unaltered piece of driftwood could be considered art if displayed in a gallery. Of course, there is a “making” aspect through the display, which then evokes the “resemblance.”

I reject that art cannot be defined just because we cannot sufficiently articulate a realization that something is “art,” or because doing so would stymie future creativity (there may be no stronger creative force than rebellion). I reject that definitions must be enduring rules rather than temporal ascriptions, so that the Mona Lisa will always be “art” for its time and context. I reject that the definition has to be universally understood or applied, adopting instead a fluid understanding best summarized in the famous legal standard deciding pornography, “you know it when you see it.”

I suggest one basic definition that I believe can withstand the vagaries of changing context and debate concerning what constitutes creative content (for instance, artifactual versus conceptual): Art is the objectification of experience. Art is taking an experience (an emotion, observation, idea, or merely the passage of time) and transposing or relating it in an objective form (a painting, film, novel, musical composition, etc).  Accepting this basic definition we accept that art makes an experience sensorially accessible to others in some way. From there we can ask and argue whether it is “good art,” “fine art,” etc. to avoid the inevitable problem that this definition could lead to everything being art. But maybe everything is; as Max Ehrmann’s Desiderata admonishes, “Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story.”

Is It Art?

SURREALISM: “Alternative Facts,” Consciousness Revealed, or Both

tom-towhey(Thomas Hieronymus Towhey, Catchechism, oil on canvas, 60″x 72″, $4,000)

In 1924 French poet, André Breton published the Surrealist Manifesto founding a genre of art and thought that is still relevant today. He defined surrealism as,

“Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express — verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner — the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.”

Psychic automatism is a sort of expressive stream of consciousness, unedited and unguided by any external concerns. Automatism in practice is as problematic as meditation.

“Meditation is a word that has come to be used loosely and inaccurately in the modern world. That is why there is so much confusion about how to practice it. Some people use the word meditate when they mean thinking or contemplating; others use it to refer to daydreaming or fantasizing.” (https://yogainternational.com/article/view/the-real-meaning-of-meditation)

The parallels are apt, people practice both for the same reason, accessing some aspect of the subconscious. The debate about the purpose and value of both seems to turn on whether the subscious is more indicative and trustworthy than rational thought.

The surrealist movement was radical in its estimation of the subconscious as superior to reason—thus “sur“—above, on, over reality. In the context of 1924, this probably was a reaction to Sigmund Freud’s newly posited theories about psychopathology and treatment as well as the interwar milieu of geopolitical and economic instability resulting from the redrawn map, depletion of capital, antagonistic reparations, shift from wartime industry, and general fatigue. Reality simply wasn’t that great, there had to be something better, like the subconscious. Thus, surrealism can be argued as at best a redemptive effort to find the higher ground of existence, or at least as simple escapism into introspection.

The effect of surrealism is complicated by the artist’s rational assumptions or incorporated reasoning. The art of Salvador Dali is widely thought to be premised on an assumed primacy of sexuality in the subconscious, and René Magritte’s art intentionally challenged perceptions as much by what was omitted as by what was included. Through this more intentional, often representational, approach, surrealism evolved to be less psycho-automatic or revelatory of the artist’s psyche and more contrived to be revelatory of the viewer’s.

Indeed to some extent all art seeks a surrealistic reaction from the viewer, a core and basic reaction that can be as simple and irrationally explicit as “I don’t know why, I just like it,” or as enlightening as an epiphany clarifying reality with a symbolic experience.  In Towhey’s painting it is up to the viewer whether the nun’s tether is depriving the children of their humanity or saving them from a fall from grace, or is part of an entirely different narrative. The viewer’s subconscious reaction can be conflagrated or obscured by their rational thought, or not. The painting is merely a ticket for that ride.

Surrealism deliberately gives us “alternative facts,” which like all distortion ironically makes clearer the rational truth by contrast. Whether the alternative facts, of themselves or in effect, are superior to or truer than reality is debatable; and that debate gives surrealism its enduring and provocative value.

Towhey’s painting and other surrealistic works can be seen at the gallery through February 18th in “RESOLUTIONS | More Art,” an exhibit of more than 20 artists, curated into a cohesive collection.

SURREALISM: “Alternative Facts,” Consciousness Revealed, or Both

EVAN HILDEBRANDT [Untitled] / July 8-August 14

Hildebrandt show icon

What is it? You tell me.

What is in a title—preconceived notions, persuasion, sentiment, influence, judgment, beliefs? Evan Hildebrandt has created new untitled works for you to see without the bias of introduction. Meet them and name them for yourself.

In his newest series of work, [Untitled], Evan Hildebrandt asks the viewer to experience his art without revealing his artistic intention in a title or an artist’s statement. Hildebrandt wants his audience to have an intuitive response to his work, free from any prescriptive directions about how to understand it. His hope is that viewers will form their own opinions and create dialog around their own reactions, “I believe the work will speak for itself and am excited to see what it will reveal to the viewer.”

Exhibit Hours 7/8-8/14: Thur, Fri 5-8p; Sat 2-5p

Special Events: Opening pARTy 7/8 (Fri), 5-8p; Fin-Fri-OTR 7/29 (Fri), 5-10p; Closing Café 8/14 (Sun), 2-5p

EVAN HILDEBRANDT [Untitled] / July 8-August 14