The Art of 2012

“This is pretty,” the woman said in a distracted voice to her husband, as she entered the small gallery in Carmel, cast a quick glance across the three walls of art on display, and then walked out.

“Pretty?” I thought, but did not say.  “Pretty?  How can you make any judgment about these etchings whatsoever if you don’t slow down, stop walking, stop talking, and actually look at them?”

Hmmm.  Sounds like I was the one passing judgment here.

Being less judgmental—toward myself and others—is one of my New Year’s resolutions, but as a devoted appreciator of the arts I am making judgments all the time: what plays or shows or concerts to attend, and then what I think of them, and then whether I think they are worth my time and the time of my readers to write about them.  Such thoughts and decisions reside in a nebulous realm called taste, which is hardly a democracy.  Critics often present their year-end top ten lists alphabetically, perhaps to avoid the pressure of rating the films, books or albums from most-favorite to least-favorite. True, there is the issue of comparing apples and oranges.  But deep down, they probably have a favorite.

I have favorites, too, and in this first post of 2013 I am going to mention a few of the encounters with art that meant the most to me in the past year.

Several of those encounters took place at the Carl Cherry Center, in Carmel, which right now may be the most vital and varied cultural institution in Monterey County.  I saw several excellent works of theatre there, notably a strong production of Harold Pinter’s “Old Times,” and two original works probing the rich and sometimes dark complexities of the mother-daughter bond.  (If you missed them, or my posts, you can read about them here, here, and here.)  Most powerfully, a show in November of photographs of homeless women changed the way I look at homeless people in our community.  I needed to be reminded that each person at a corner intersection with a cardboard sign asking for help has a spirit, a soul, a story.  I no longer react by keeping my window closed and studiously avoiding eye contact, and instead am grateful to have the opportunity to connect with someone, even for a brief moment, who surely needs the couple bucks in my wallet more than I do.

The film that impacted me the most in 2012 was the documentary “Bully,” which showed for several weeks at the Osio Cinemas, our number one area resource for thoughtful motion pictures.  We almost lost the Osio this year when outside parties required them to switch to digital projection.  Thankfully, some local angels stepped into the quarter-million-dollar breach, and our local treasure was saved.

“Bully” told a story of vulnerability: how certain kids are able to survive the vicious taunting and physical attacks that have apparently become the norm in American schools, and others are not.  Thinking about the art that touches me on the deepest level, I often sense a certain quality of vulnerability at its heart.  As I get older, I am less interested in cleverness, intellectual showmanship, and bombast.  I would rather be moved than impressed.

One of the most moving works of art I experienced this year was Kevin Puts’ composition “Living Frescoes,” performed by Trio Solisti (piano, violin and cello) with clarinetist Jon Manasse.  I have already written at length about this concert (you can read that post here), so will only add that as time passes what I remember is not specific melodies or harmonies but what I experienced in my body: a deep and profoundly stirring feeling of connection with what I can only call, for lack of a better term, the timeless mystery.

And now I must confront my own vulnerability in continuing this post, for it would be inauthentic for me to leave out what was a personal highlight of the year: seeing and hearing and meeting author Louise Erdrich in Santa Cruz; yet such is the high esteem and even reverence in which I have placed this woman for the last twenty years that I feel abashed to put these feelings “out there,” for all the online world to see.  Okay, I’ll include one of the photos that was taken of us.  (Thanks, Grace!)  I know I look like a crazed fan.  Well, that is what I am.  (And less than a month after this photo was taken she won the National Book Award for her stunning new novel, The Round House!)

As I said at the outset of this post, a lot of judgments.  After the woman who had called the art “pretty” strode out of the gallery inside the Carmel Art Association, I resumed examining at length the exquisite work of Justin Ward.  I'd reviewed a show of his etchings, displayed at the Monterey Conference Center, earlier this year, but this exhibit was even more compelling, with more personal pieces that to my eye expressed the tender poetry of loss: a lone bicycle leaning against a wall in “Abandoned Farmhouse”; the intimate chiaroscuro of two figures framed by a gnarled trunk in “Walk on the Beach”; the vitality of a ruin in “Still Standing,” in which Ward’s mastery with line and texture revealed the robust, beautiful presence that remains when a building is abandoned, if only we take the time to see.