wet earth

Art Is Delicious!

Some years ago, I wrote a piece about finding art that quietly lives in the neighborhood.  I’m still always looking for places that celebrate art without turning it into just one more expensive object to acquire or desire.  It’s been a long time since modern capitalist culture turned artistic expression into “the art world,” a high-priced market-driven ego fetish, severing art from its traditional, mythic function of reflecting and strengthening the bonds of community.  The trend only continues to worsen.  Finding places to experience an authentic encounter with art, one that isn’t mediated by corporate, top-down values, is increasingly rare.

One place where art continues to thrive is Sweet Elena’s, the popular cafe in Sand City.  Many coffeehouses and restaurants display local art, but at Sweet Elena’s there is a palpable commitment to artists and a sheer love of art that sets it apart.

On a recent visit, paintings by Sand City artist Suzanne St. John offered views of the old sand plant, now long gone.  A puzzle-like jumble of industrial architecture transformed by the rich colors of memory, these paintings explore an unlikely source of art and are an invitation to reconsider the meaning of beauty.

In a side room, cafe owner Elena Salsedo-Steele has assembled a personal shrine to art and the creative process.  Small portraits by Johnny Apodaca and Michael Snodgrass present humble fruits and vegetables as worthy artistic subjects; my favorite is the buoyant leek, set against a cheery blue sky background.  Elegant and evocative cut-paper works by Kevin Miller share shelfspace with bits of shell, a downed mobile, stones, ceramics.  A lower shelf features old paintbrushes and two oddly delightful assemblages constructed with blue-painted pieces of wood.

Old paintbrushes also hang over a doorway, fashioning a distinct threshold that reminds visitors they have entered a place where art lives.

Works by Robin Winfield also straddle a threshold: Are they photographs?  Are they paintings?  Winfield mounts photographs onto a wooden board, creating a unique canvas for her paintbrush.  The effect, as in “Chop Suey, Salinas” (at right), is dreamlike, the work’s gently rippled texture almost liquid with ambiguity.

Next month, Sweet Elena’s celebrates its 20th anniversary, and to kick off the celebration, the cafe sponsored a children’s art contest, whose results are currently on display.  The $100-winning piece, a posterboard of cupcakes and other sweet treats made by the children of an art camp in Gonzales, is a grand declaration of the goodness of dessert.  The beautiful ceramic pastries made by Carmel Valley 4th-graders are also a delight.  Postcards featuring the children’s art will be on sale to benefit Hamilton House, an emergency shelter for displaced and battered women.

It is possible that not every patron to Sweet Elena’s will pay attention to the art that fills its corners and covers its Van Gogh-ochre walls.  People may be in a hurry, or be distracted, or be too busy eating, reading, chatting or daydreaming to notice.  At a museum, we drop our outside concerns and turn our eyes and minds to the painting on the wall, the sculpture on the pedestal.  At a cafe, we sit down to eat lunch, our backs to a painting, and we may not notice it.

But another way to think about places like Sweet Elena’s is that these are places where art is in the air, like the aroma of fresh-baked bread.  Simply being in such an art-filled environment may be just as nourishing as the delicious food on the menu.  Even without examining every brushstroke, we feel and absorb the energy of creativity, partake of the sweet ingredients that have made Elena’s a success for twenty years, and are subtly transformed.

Sweet Elena’s Bakery, 465D Olympia Avenue, Sand City.  20th Anniversary Open House Celebration benefiting Hamilton House, Sunday, March 4, 2:00-5:00 pm. (831) 393-2063.

A Moving Performance of Feelings

Finally, there is a 3-D movie to be excited about.

“Pina,” directed by Wim Wenders, is a tribute and celebration of the German choreographer Pina Bausch, who died in 2009 at the age of 68.  Bausch’s stunning dances take the viewer to the furthest edge of raw emotion, and when filmed in 3-D, the distance between viewer, performer and stage seems to collapse, heightening the already considerable emotional impact.  The effect is mesmerizing.

Wenders also stretches the documentary genre by staging his interviews with individual dancers as performances.  We hear the words of a dancer, spoken in one of the many languages represented by Bausch’s international troupe, but the dancers themselves, on film, do not speak.  Instead, their faces express their words.  Though seated, they are dancing, dancing with their faces, with their memories and stories of Pina.  Their words seem to float outside their bodies—in 3-D, the subtitles literally do appear to float in an intermediate, hovering space—and this turns the most basic tool of the documentarian, the seated interview, into a kind of dance, a moving performance of feelings.

Most 3-D films of the last few years have used the format to impress or startle the viewer into a state of vigilant excitability.  Here, the technology serves the very meaning of dance: to explore the dimensionality of the human body in space, and to express the varied dimensions of human emotion and connection.

In one fascinating scene, two veterans of the dance company reminisce about Pina as they stand next to a small-scale model of a stage.  As Wenders turns his camera to the small diorama, its diminutive stage comes alive with actual dancers and props.  It’s a technical trick, yet also a brilliant staging of the way memory works.  For the dancers, the model is not a lifeless shell, it’s a portal for remembering.

The dance which they, and the film’s audience, watch, “Cafe Müller,” was incorporated by Pedro Almodovar into the opening of his movie “Talk to Her” (with Bausch herself as one of the dancers), and the themes of the dance are also those the Spanish director has explored throughout his career: the stripped-bare, paradoxical desperation for both closeness and freedom, intimacy and escape, the strange and familiar violence of human need.  In “Cafe Müller,” a frantic woman careens across a room while a man hurls chairs out of her way; a woman keeps falling out of a man’s arms and keeps throwing herself back into his embrace; the great English soprano Jennifer Vyvyan sings the haunting lament from Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas”—“Remember me,” she cries, as if to be forgotten is the worst of all crimes.

Pina, and “Pina,” will not be forgotten.  “Pina” is also about the community of dance artists she gathered, supported, nurtured and transformed.  Early in the film, Wenders shows a breathtaking performance of “Rite of Spring” on a stage transformed into an expanse of dark earth.  Moving with the fierce sounds of Stravinsky’s primal score, the dancers become streaked with dirt and sweat.  This is art that leaves traces, on body and soul, and one understands from the spoken interviews the depth of the company’s enduring love of their departed mentor and guide.

“Pina” is currently playing at the Osio in downtown Monterey, though not in 3-D; I strongly urge interested viewers to make the drive up to Santa Cruz, where it is showing in 3-D in the grand Del Mar Theatre on Pacific Street.  Pina Bausch’s life-affirming dances are theatrical, expressionistic, symbolic, elemental.  Wenders’ achievement is to bring us close to the dream of art: to capture and convey the limitless dimensionality of life.

The Art of Arranging

When you are five grown men who play oboe, clarinet, saxophone, bass clarinet, and bassoon together for a living, you need a lot of flexibility when it comes to repertoire.  There are just not very many pieces written for oboe, clarinet, saxophone, bass clarinet, and bassoon.  Yet to the creative mind, this situation presents more opportunities than obstacles.

Calefax, a Dutch quintet appearing this Friday, February 24, at Sunset Center in Carmel, has established itself as a highly original band of musical adventurers over the last 25 years, choosing and arranging music from the last eight centuries to fit their unique constellation.  For their performance in Carmel, they will perform their own arrangements of music by Debussy, Grieg, Shostokovich, and J. S. Bach.

Bach is a composer whose music sounds good on any instrument, in any combination—its matchless structural integrity can survive any form of manipulation.  I am greatly anticipating Calefax’s performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, one of the most staggering achievements in the history of art.  Bach’s Variations, originally written for solo keyboard, are composed of multiple and contrasting voices that harmonize and play against each other, and it will be fascinating to hear how Calefax has divvied up Bach’s gorgeous weave of voices among the five reed instruments.

The other works on the program, Debussy’s Suite Bergamasque, selections from Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues, and Grieg’s Holberg Suite, were also originally written for piano (Grieg later arranged his Suite for string orchestra), and it is interesting to look at this connection through the lens of jazz.  While the piano is the quintessential jazz instrument, appreciated for its depth and range of textures, sounds, and colors, for many jazz musicians, the heart of the jazz experience is the small-knit jazz combo.  The structure of the small ensemble creates a space for endless invention and improvisation, an interplay of distinct and individual voices combining in creative, always-shifting counterpoint.  This is one reason Bach continues to be so cherished and influential among jazz artists.

Debussy and Shostakovich are among the many 20th-century composers who were influenced by the new rhythms and harmonies of jazz—Shostakovich even wrote a Suite for Jazz Orchestra—and while there is nothing notably jazzy about the music of Edvard Grieg, his Holberg Suite is a collection of pieces inspired by courtly dances, evoking a time when listening to music meant getting up to dance, or at least tap your toes.

I expect there will be a great deal of tapping toes at Calefax’s concert, including those of the musicians, who always perform standing up, like jazz players.

Calefax Reed Quintet, presented by Chamber Music Monterey Bay, Friday, February 24, at 8:00 pm, at Sunset Center, San Carlos and 9th, Carmel.  (831) 625-2212.

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