Best Of :: Culture
"The most colossal spectacle in the world," the French painter Fernand Léger wrote in 1931, when he first glimpsed "the astounding event that is New York seen at night from forty floors up. It resists all vulgarization. It keeps its freshness." Considering that the art world has never been more globalized than today, it can be surprising that artists from near and far still share Léger's zeal for our ever more expensive town. Headquartered in a deconsecrated Brooklyn church, Residency Unlimited tailors programs to visiting artists' needs, whether providing help with studio accommodations, arranging meetings with curators and other arts professionals, or finding exhibition opportunities ranging from galleries in the boroughs to storefronts in New Rochelle. A critic visiting RU's soaring and flexible work/performance/lecture/meeting space might swap ideas with a sculptor from Cyprus who uses euros and other currencies to probe relative values in the art world, or with an Israeli video artist projecting her mind's eye through trippy narratives. RU also facilitates outbound residencies that send artists as far afield as Malaysia and Wales. A recent fundraising raffle offered a two-month, all-expenses-paid residency in Taiwan — all you needed was 25 bucks and an artistic vision. And the odds were a hell of a lot better than with "a dollar and a dream."
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Charles Atlas isn't simply a great artist, he's a great New York artist. Without the videos, films, and installations he's produced over the past forty-odd years, this city might not know the half of itself. The self-taught Atlas has always trained his lens on the rarest, most brilliant birds — choreographers, performance artists, singers, dancers — capturing moving portraits that are, in essence, collaborative works of art. "You really have to respect, trust, and love the people you're working with," he told frieze magazine in 2011, "and then it works out."
One of Atlas's first and best-known co- conspirators was choreographer Merce Cunningham. The two began working together in the early 1970s to solve the challenge of how to film dance without draining its life force. Their solution: a hybrid genre they called "media dance," in which a performance is constructed both on stage and in camera, creating a document possessed of the palpable energy of the movements and rhythms of bodies in space and time.
It's this life force that has always distinguished Atlas's art (luhringaugustine.com/artists/charles-atlas), and which might in fact be his true medium. His Hail the New Puritan of 1985–86 is a tour de force genre-bender, a feature-length film that constructs "a day in the life" of Scottish bad boy ballet dancer/choreographer Michael Clark and his company from the rehearsal studio to the streets of Thatcher-era London to the stage. This is no simple documentary: Atlas's film softens the edges between person and persona, and between life and performance, capturing Clark et al. as though suspended in a world wholly of their own making. Many of Atlas's muses have been resplendently queer: Where Cunningham's sexuality was perhaps more covert, Clark let it all hang out (literally and figuratively). Atlas's work with Leigh Bowery, the luminary performance artist and designer, captured the Technicolor wonderland of Bowery's outrageously beautiful being: his outer-space "drag" and reimagining of the body. Like any great portrait artist, Atlas knows that what is put on — whether makeup or clothes or a pose — is as vital as anything beneath it.
Atlas's body of work features a seemingly endless list of avant-gardians: Yvonne Rainer, Douglas Dunn, John Kelly, Marina Abramovic, Karole Armitage, Mika Tajima and New Humans, and Antony Hegarty, to name a few. Hs newer work reflects the darker tones American culture has taken: The 2015 multi-channel video installation "The Waning of Justice" features the opalescent Lady Bunny talking global politics while words like "UTOPIA" and "HISTORY" are superimposed on apocalyptic-looking sunsets. Tender, sad, absurd: Such is the passage of time and the inevitable losses it brings. To catch sight of Atlas's work now rather than wait for his next show, feast your eyes on his 1991 trilogy, What I Did Last Summer, currently on view at the Whitney Museum (99 Gansevoort Street, 212-570-3600, whitney.org). You'll wish this entire city still looked like Mr. Atlas's neighborhood.
Brooklyn-based author Charles Bock says that in his 2008 debut novel, Beautiful Children, a dense page-turner set in his native Las Vegas, he set out to depict "the nobility inherent in struggles that cannot be won." It's a grace in the face of tragedy that runs through Bock's latest, Alice & Oliver (Random House), a heartbreaking, intimate tome that the book jacket states was "inspired by the author's life."
Knowing that fact before reading the novel lends it even more pathos. In 1993, Alice and Oliver Culvert (so named, Bock explains, because Alice's life "goes right into a fucking ditch") are a cool, likable New York City couple with a sweet new baby, the wide-eyed, gurgling Doe. Alice works in fashion; her husband is a stoic basketball fan with a "piercing intelligence" and a "formidable collection of technical skills." The pair have the prescience to become early residents of the meatpacking district ("dominated by dock thugs and frozen slabs; after dark, rotted zombie addicts held court with leather-collar sex club slaves and transvestite streetwalkers"). Alice's and Oliver's lives, love, and careers appear enviable and on the rise.
If it seems too good to be true, it is. A leukemia diagnosis for the young mother throws the family into a long horror of chemo, biopsies, quarantines, and central lines. Bock explores every nuance of the process with equal passion, from the despair of the insurance process to navigating romance and sex in the throes of a lengthy illness.
Bock says his goal was to write "a generous if unflinching book about life. Figuring out what we owe ourselves and what we owe each other when things really matter and are hard. Admittedly, it goes to some intense places. There is some orchestral sadness. But it's in service of something larger, having to do with just how magic and ephemeral our everyday lives are."
The observations from Alice's drug- and disease-clouded perspective are especially poignant. "Someone is speaking to me now, a voice I half-recognize, and though I am familiar with his words, for some strange reason, I cannot respond," she reports as her stem cell transplant looms. In doctors' waiting rooms, Alice does her best to observe etiquette: "You work not to gawk at the man with no jaw...as you pass some helpless pile of bones on a stretcher, it takes all the discipline you've got not to stare at those sarcoma lesions, dark and purple."
The detail, humanity, and insight — much gleaned, unfortunately, from Bock's experience with wife Diana Joy Colbert, who died of leukemia in 2011 (he dedicates this book to her and their daughter, Lily Bock) — makes for a riveting journey. But while portions of Alice & Oliver were inspired by Colbert's journal, the novel strays from Bock's real-life narrative. "I did very much want a book that would eventually let my daughter know how much her mom wanted to be here for her and some of what she went through to do that," he says. "But I also needed to try and do justice to the story that I had in my head, the novel-length piece of fiction that was gradually coming into form."
Unlike Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking, Alice & Oliver is not strictly an elegy — multiple points of view and the freedom of fiction lend the novel a drama and fullness. The sense of place in both of Bock's books is commanding; Vegas's loss is New York's gain, as Bock cements his place in Brooklyn's literary legacy.
For the past several years, Brooklyn resident Yehuda Hyman has been developing The Mar Vista, a five-part narrative of his working-class family's history before and during his childhood on L.A.'s West Side. What he's calling the "binge-watch edition" — the first time the whole piece takes the stage at one time — begins a three-week run at the Theater at the 14th Street Y (344 East 14th Street, 646-395-4310, 14streety.org) on December 1.
In collaboration with his Mystical Feet Company (Ron Kagan, Dwight Kelly, Amanda Schussel, Ryan Pater, and Ezra Lowrey), Hyman brings to life a wartime romance, a grand sartorial gesture that cements a probably misguided marriage, Hyman's quest to understand his mother's lost love, and his own efforts to find himself as a gay Jewish child in what often felt like hostile territory. Hyman weaves the episodic work together with intensely physical storytelling, flinging his compact form about like a genie loosed from a magic lamp. Laced with music and dancing, the two-hour piece transports you across continents and a century to a deep, lyrical understanding of the making of an artist.
Born in Los Angeles in the 1950s to immigrant parents from Poland and Russia, Hyman became a ballet-obsessed teenager at Santa Monica High School, studying on scholarship at the Beverly Hills studio of Tatiana Riabouchinska (one of George Balanchine's "baby ballerinas," who danced with the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo). There, he says, "I was excited to clean up Juliet Prowse's poodle piddle, and to be around legends like Cyd Charisse, Ray Bolger, Leslie Caron, and Anton Dolin."
A stint in an ill-fated musical version of Gone With the Wind got Hyman his Equity card. He later performed with Lee Theodore's American Dance Machine and bounced from coast to coast in an effort to find just the right medium for the tales bottled up inside him. Paul Sills, a Second City founder who developed the idea of story theater — a technique that improvises plays from myths and folk tales — was a powerful influence, Hyman says, introducing him to "the idea that you could create an entire world and tell a story just using your body. I started creating narrative solo pieces using text and movement. I ran away to San Francisco, completely stopped dancing, did fifteen years of temping, and wrote plays. I didn't actually think I would ever move or dance again. I wanted to be a really good playwright." His work has since been produced across the country, and he's performed with some of New York's leading avant-garde theatermakers, including David Herskovits and Mac Wellman.
Hyman started making The Mar Vista in 2000, at the Millay Colony in Sullivan County, later returning to New York — "the only place I ever wanted to be" — to earn his MFA in dance at Sarah Lawrence, where he began developing the piece, originally a solo, for a group of students. "[The Sarah Lawrence faculty] really wanted me to be able to show, explain, pass on what I was doing to other young bodies," he says. Some of those bodies will now perform in the finished work, starting next month.
Every day of a particularly chilly week last October, Ric Leichtung saw the same friendly Siamese cat roaming the gutters near his Bushwick apartment, forlorn and shivering. After one too many cold nights, a friend told him he had to bring the cat inside. "I was like, 'I don't know, I'm allergic to cats. I think this is a terrible idea,' " he remembers. "But I took it in and I ended up really, surprisingly loving cats, even though I grew up hating them." Since then he's rescued and rehomed four more, posting photos of each on Facebook until a friend of a friend agrees to take the kitties in. He's a one-man DIY ASPCA.
The cats are lucky Leichtung has taken up their cause. Thanks to eight prolific years booking shows in New York, he has a far-reaching social network ready to support his projects. Those ventures include what he calls "the cat thing," plus working as a talent buyer at Webster Hall (125 East 11th Street, Manhattan, 212-353-1600, websterhall.com) and, along with co-founder Emilie Friedlander, operating AdHoc (adhoc.fm), a collective that runs an out-of-left-field music website, produces a free zine whose writers include both journalists and musicians, and books dozens of shows a month. "If you're a big band, you have to play with Live Nation or AEG, and what AdHoc tries to offer is an alternative," Leichtung says. "You can still do big things with a grassroots mentality. [We're] trying to grow with the artists we knew when they were small."
AdHoc has introduced New York to many performers who made the big-time leap: Grimes, Death Grips, Arca, Parquet Courts, Alex G, Mitski, DJ Rashad. Leichtung has endured the closure of 285 Kent, the original Market Hotel, Death by Audio, and Palisades, all of which AdHoc was involved with. But he doesn't indulge in mourning them. "People who say there's no good venues anymore are totally wrong," he says. "You just have to look, and you also have to do things. You can't expect change to happen by itself."
These days AdHoc's name and signature ¯\_(?)_/¯ emoji, its mascot of sorts, show up attached to artists in multiple genres — a testament to Leichtung and Freidlander's broad, discerning tastes. AdHoc is now expanding to artsier spaces, including National Sawdust (80 North 6th Street, Brooklyn, 646-779-8455, nationalsawdust.org), which chose Leichtung as a curator for its current season. Unsurprisingly, Leichtung has little free time; he spends much of it with his cat, the same one he picked up off the street. And he still keeps his ears open for lonely late-night meows. "I get the same feeling from rescuing cats that I do from shows," he says. "It's doing something positive for the community. It just feels really good."
About three years ago, when the Ludlow Street building that would become the Metrograph was lying empty and unused, Jake Perlin, the theater's artistic and programming director, walked through the space with owner Alexander Olch. "The place was just brick walls," Perlin remembers, "and Alex asked, 'What do you need?' " Perlin took a piece of chalk and drew a huge line along one wall. "I want to show 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, in CinemaScope," he told Olch. "And if I can't have a screen this wide, then what's the fucking point?"
Perlin got his screen, along with another, slightly smaller one. And since it opened its doors in early March, the Lower East Side's elegant, bustling Metrograph (7 Ludlow Street, Manhattan, metrograph.com, 212-660-0312) has quickly become an essential part of the city's moviegoing scene, with repertory programming of mind-blowing breadth and quality. The credit for that goes to Perlin and head of programming Aliza Ma, who have been uniquely involved in building the theater from the ground up: Perlin is a co-founder (with Olch), and Ma was the theater's first hire.
In its first few months, the theater presented retrospectives of a diverse roster of filmmakers, including Brian De Palma, Amy Heckerling, Akira Kurosawa, Robert Aldrich, and Jean Eustache. In one recent one-month period, you could see the collaborations of John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands, a collection of films about video games (hello, Last Starfighter!), a program dedicated to disco and the movies, and a series called "This Is PG?" highlighting all the crazy stuff Hollywood got away with before the PG-13 rating came along.
But perhaps the jewel in the theater's crown is its ongoing "Welcome to Metrograph: A–Z" program, described as "a year-long, alphabetically ordered series that offers films we consider must-sees," with the only limitation being that there can be only one film per director. The result is a kind of loose, shifting alt-canon that mixes classics with underappreciated gems, with the one-director-one-film rule leading to unexpected choices. When deciding on a Fritz Lang film, Ma and Perlin opted for the magnificently heartbreaking and underseen noir Scarlet Street over such warhorses like Metropolis or M. For a Yasujiro Ozu film, they went for lesser-known tale of marriage and independence Equinox Flower over Tokyo Story or Late Spring.
That said, "the goal is to program for people, not for the paper," Perlin says. "I want people to say, 'I saw that film on the screen and enjoyed it,' not 'I saw all these films in this series.' " Ma says that they want to foster "an atmosphere of discussion and excitement. We want people to want to hang out here and talk about what they've seen." To that end, everything at the Metrograph, from the layout of the lobby to the placement of recycling receptacles, was conceived around the principle that it's special to go to the movies — not to mention easy and welcoming.
Ma adds that this may be one reason that the theater has had no trouble attracting the demographic that arthouse and rep cinemas usually struggle to reach. "Maybe it's the neighborhood we're in, or the formula we're presenting, but we're getting a lot of young viewers," she says. "And those are the people cinema needs if it's going to thrive."