January 24, 2019

Mickalene Thomas: Femmes Noires

My attitude toward our southern neighbour swings wildly, from: “That hell hole,” to “We have so much to learn from the USA!”  The work of Mickalene Thomas, and her show at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) titled Femmes Noires, makes me truly appreciate the USA and the driving, pure, singular force of innovation that springs up fairly frequently in that turbulent and mesmerizing country.

Mickalene Thomas, Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe: Les trois femmes noires (detail)

“Visibility, empowerment, celebration.” That is a quote from Mickalene Thomas, talking about what she wants people to take away from her AGO show.  She succeeds.  It is an exultant display, uplifting to visit.  So many images of queenly, glittering, sumptuous women.  I guess it takes a gay, black woman to shrug off deference to a male art world and let glitter and sequins reign.

Shinique: Now I know by Mickalene Thomas (detail)

The paintings shown in the Femmes Noires exhibition – collages of oil paint, photographs, and other materials – often refer to revered works by male artists from the past, like Picasso, Manet or Ingres. The women that emerge in these paintings have a deep sense of themselves: Their gaze is frank, self-contained, self-knowing and profoundly calm in the center of riotous color and pattern.

Une Odalisque by Jean Auguste Dominque Ingres

The painting titled “Shinique: Now I Know” references the Neo-classical touchstone “Une Odalisque.” This painting, by Ingres, above, was widely reviled when it was first shown. Critics pointed to the elongated curved creature in the painting as anatomically impossible. And yet this picture has endured, sits in the Louvre to this day, and is included in every Art History survey around the world.  Apparently, it had more than anatomical correctness going on.

Guerilla Girls at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

People respond deeply to Ingres’ painting.  What is it that makes people decide to redo it, or use it in provocative sloganeering, as per the Gorilla Girls famous poster above.  Maybe there is something essentially irritating about “Une Odalisque” itself, that paradigm of “Orientalism.”

Installation shot of Femmes Noires at the AGO

The Femmes Noires show is big! There are two massive galleries where the visitor can lounge in a living room environment — with potted plants, comfortable chairs and cushions — browse novels or other works about the black experience, and watch media (some random snippets are included below:)

It seemed like there was a bit of a disconnect from the present. We see Whitney, Eartha, Pam, Diana and so many other fabulous black women icons from the past but where are today’s powerful black women?  In fact Mickalene Thomas has collaborated with Solange, Beyonce (The Queen!!!) and other contemporary black superstars but that work just doesn’t happen to be included in this exhibition.

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Portrait of Solange Knowles by Mickalene Thomas

I was feeling pretty good about my former homeland by the time I left the Mickalene Thomas exhibition at the AGO.  What an exciting place of invention and possibility!  All the fraught recriminations and anger that characterize this contentious era in the USA don’t really come up at Femmes Noires.  It’s like an invitation to a new world.

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Portrait of Maya #10 by Mickalene Thomas

 

January 11, 2018

York University Station

The exterior view of the brand new York University subway features a graceful, winglike swoop.  It resembles a miniature Kennedy Airport and has the same lightness and fluidity as that iconic structure, which was designed by Eero Saarinen in 1962.

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View of York University subway from AGYU on cold and rainy afternoon.

The new station, which is literally right across the street from the Art Gallery of York University (AGYU), was a collaborative design effort between Foster + Partners with Arup Canada.  Seen from outside, the station has a lovely, rather modest scale.  It’s when the rider descends, or ascends, that the station reveals majestic curves, plunging light sources, grandly sloping glass walls and dramatic stairways.

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Making an entrance at the new York University subway station.

It’s capacious, filled with light and air and it is beautiful!

Apparently the vision for the new subway line started to take shape more than 30 years ago.  What was happening way back then, in Toronto in the mid 1980s?  One thing: getting to York University was a hassle.

Postcommodity at AGYU

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Postcommodity at AGYU

Because I arrived early  – whisked effortlessly upward, upward on the stunning new Line 1 extension – to AGYU, I was able to join the volunteers for the pre-opening stroll through the exhibition by Postcommodity.

Two of the artists who make up the collective were present, and they spoke about their work, explaining in particular the torturous relationships between the US Federal border patrols, the Mexican and Latin American migrants, and, the drug cartels, and how those relationships play out along the border.  Surprisingly, the artists expressed a stoic optimism about the situation, viewing the land itself as infinitely more powerful than the various frontier guardians and extant border walls.

Video of installation by Postcommodity (similar installation is currently at AGYU)

Looking at the artwork however – and experiencing the audio component, which is a major element of the show – did not exactly inspire optimism but rather evoked sensations of disorientation, uncertainty and dread.

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Artwork by Postcommodity

There is a lot of empty, dark space in the AGYU show.  The central room is filled with sounds – whispers and incantations – that dart about, now on your shoulder and then across the room. There is a sole projected photograph, shown above.

The tour group was asked to think about the symbolism contained within this photograph.  We viewed the  horse carcass, unflinching dogs, fence, bleakness, neglect, loneliness, general ghastliness.  (The horse as “symbol of colonialism” was mentioned but that, to me, is a stretch.  The horse is a symbol of so many things.)  We did not need to think about it too long.  It’s immediately clear.  This is a tough place to survive.

Below is another depiction, unrelated to the Postcommodity show at AGYU, of a border and hostile environment.

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Approaching Canada US border at Emerson, Manitoba

April 9, 2016

Lately I have been obsessed with getting to work on time.  If I’m late I might not have a place to sit.  There are always a few latecomers lugging their laptops down to Starbucks to set up shop for the day and I don’t want to be one of them.  I tried working from home – some people (slackers?) seem to love it, but not me.  My home life and my work life start to become one seamless parade with work edging out home until it seems like that’s all I do.  I started going in to the office again, joining the flow of humanity on the TTC, earlier and earlier, 7:30, 7:20, 7:15…And then I remembered:  Looking at Art in Toronto.

Trinity Square Video – Heather Phillipson

Trinity Square Video’s new location is not optimal for viewing.  Skylights wash out the projected video images.  (I was advised they are fixing the problem and custom blinds are on order.)  Fortunately, the inaugural exhibition of the space features work by Heather Phillipson, and the  show, titled “sub-fusc love-feast,” has such a powerful audio component that the diminished visual impact is hardly missed.

 

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Installation view of sub-fusc love-feast by Heather Phillipson

Also, three video projection screens are tucked into an elaborate installation of cut out photographs.  It’s like walking around in an oversized collage, cut out from cheerful travel postcards and National Geographic magazines.

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Installation views of sub-fusc love-feast by Heather Phillipson

The layers of sound and music, dominated by a bell-like female voice, are completely absorbing.  Heather Phillipson is a thinker and a poet.  She takes on the slippery task of defining nature in this era of unrestrained production and gives voice to the places, things and animals caught in the terrifying cycles of consumption.

The piece has a plaintive, uncertain feel to it, the sound in particular grows panicky at times and fearful.  This makes sense given the subject matter.  Heather Phillipson explores the grim news that is easier to deny than accept; the scale and finality of the environmental crisis that looms over us all.

 

Gallery 44 – Sarah Anne Johnson

The victim of a medical experiment, perpetrated without the consent or knowledge of patients, Sarah Ann Johnson’s grandmother suffered crippling depression and agoraphobia following her treatment.  Sarah Anne Johnson explores this trauma, which continues to ripple through generations of her family, in a video installation called The Kitchen.

 

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Still from The Kitchen by Sarah Anne Johnson

On numerous monitors we watch short loops of a woman, alone, on a kind of stage set which is a kitchen.  The clothes and decor signify the nineteen fifties.  She wears a dress and heels but everything else is wrong.  This woman is strangely afflicted, nuts probably.  A mask is warn on the back of her head and a wig obscures her face.  She carries out her lonely kitchen activities backwards, freakish, awkward, perpetually failing, occasionally crying out in frustration, hurling plates in this filthy kitchen where she seems to be trapped.

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Still from The Kitchen by Sarah Anne Johnson

It’s fascinating to watch the intense and torturous contortions the woman performs to carry out simple tasks as our vision flips back and forth, trying to make sense of the impossible.  And maybe that is what Sarah Anne Johnson is getting at: the misery of trying to succeed in an situation which is impossible.

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Still from The Kitchen by Sarah Anne Johnson

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Still from The Kitchen by Sarah Anne Johnson

In a separate room, a projected video in black and white, shows the same woman.  She is still in the kitchen.  Now she lies on the floor, trundling heavily in an abstract, compulsive manner.

In acting out these moments in the kitchen Sarah Anne Johnson may be re-creating childhood memories or simply seeking to understand her family and herself.  The art work she comes up with has a strange tragic aspect to it, dark and painful.

January 20, 2016

Report from New York

Following an afternoon in NYC and 9 days in British Virgin Islands (BVI) it is clear there is virtually no art in BVI.  New York, on the other hand, is stuffed with art. It kind of makes sense if you simply look out the window.

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Shown above is the view out the window in BVI.

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Shown above is the view out the window in New York.

In New York the radiators hiss and clang and strange cries rise from Second Avenue, four floors below.  It is a John Cage symphony here in this overheated loft and time to rush downstairs into the brittle cold and take a walk.

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There are two Lehmann Maupin galleries.  I dropped into the one on Chrystie Street.

Lehmann Maupin – Catherine Opie

It turns out Elizabeth Taylor was one of those women who exists with a tiny, precious dog on her lap. She was very close to her white, beribboned, silky, toy-like Maltese called Sugar.  Elizabeth Taylor’s affections, for animals, people and things are sumptuously revealed in an exhibition of photographs by Catherine Opie at the Lehmann Maupin .

The exhibition is called 700 Nimes Road, which was Elizabeth Taylor’s address in the glamorous Los Angeles neighbourhood known as Bel-Air.

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Above: Installation shot of 700 Nimes Road exhibition by Catherine Opie

The photographs have the ability to transport us to this hushed, rarefied retreat where the iconic actress spent her last years in violet tinted luxury. Catherine Obie had access to the home and belongings of Elizabeth Taylor.  Despite the fact that she never actually met Elizabeth Taylor the images and the “indirect portrait” they create are filled with tenderness and respectful reverence.

Below, an array of perfect sling back heels in assorted pastels, about size six, stand ready for the return of their owner as Fang strolls by.

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“Fang and Chanel” by Catherine Opie

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“The Shoe Closet” by Catherine Opie

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“The Quest for Japanese Beef” by Catherine Opie

The jewels are photographed as transcendent objects: sometimes glowing, floating, as if glimpsed in a dream-like, delirious haze.  Or as above, precious trinkets lovingly arranged.

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Photograph by Catherine Opie

Luxurious bags, luggage, sunglasses are maintained in impeccable order, ready for their owner to cast a lovely violet-eyed glance their way.  But sadly, Elizabeth Taylor, never returned to 700 Nimes Road. When Catherine Opie began her project in 2010 Elizabeth Taylor was hospitalized and died before it was completed.

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Elizabeth Taylor, February 27, 1932 – March 23, 2011

The New Museum – Cheryl Donegan

Cheryl Donegan is carrying out a four-month residency at the New Museum. To fill up this immense period of time Cheryl Donegan started a newspaper, opened a store filled with objects she has made and/or repurposed, created an online retail operation of sorts, is planning a fashion show for the Museum in April and continually carries out performances, videos and create more objects.  Simultaneously, a selection of her paintings, other works on paper, objects and videos work together to create a more conventional exhibition of the work of this artist at the Museum.

The exhibition is called Scenes and Commercials.

Looking at this work gives me the sense that Cheryl Donegan does not have much interest in tradition and yet the paintings are successful in a traditional sense. They are fun and surprising to look at and create a hectic feeling of rushing and recklessness.

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Paintings by Cheryl Donegan

Cheryl Donegan is like the girl next door. She is down-to-earth, hard working and a straight shooter. She uses plaid, Kelly green and cardboard. She is earnest and curious about marketing and commerce.

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Details from Concept Store by Cheryl Donegan

The idea of compression is one that Cheryl Donegan frequently references. This concept apparently has an idiosyncratic significance as she observed the gradual flattening of consumer electronics and extends its as a metaphor for society. She speaks about a hovering space of thin layers.  Maybe its about the way objects and ideas are quickly used up and disposed of in our mediated world.  Since nothing has any depth or substance, we need to only glance at it and move on.  Social media, retail items, relationships, events and disasters around the world, beliefs, emotions are all equally shallow, feckless, consumable.

What I really liked about Cheryl Donegan’s work is that she doesn’t let all this diminishment of all things get her down.  She seems to embrace the frantic pace of now and injects a joyful absurdity into it.  Below is a still from a videotaped performance by Cheryl Donegan in which she paints her ass green and creates shamrock prints.

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Still from video by Cheryl Donegan

80WSE – Language of the Birds: Occult and Art

Magic, Alchemy, Astrology, Kabbalah, Spirituality, spells, Divination, extra sensory perception, trance, Wicca, tarot cards, Kenneth Anger: this exhibition covers the range occult practice and imagery.  The title, Language of the Birds, refers to a particular mode of communication available to the initiated. 

The exhibition coincides with The Occult Humanities Conference 2016:
Contemporary Art and Scholarship on the Esoteric Traditions.

Although I do occasionally check my horoscope in the newspaper the occult is something I know nothing about.  I was looking for some context but it was not there.  Is there a current rising interest in these themes?  What’s the connection between the paranormal and the normal?  Why now?  It’s not really clear.

The curator, Pam Grossman, a teacher of magical practice and history, has divided the numerous works into rooms titled Cosmos, Spirits, Practitioner, Alter, Spells.  Many phantasmagorical things and images are displayed.

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Sirens by Kiki Smith

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Touch by Valerie Hammond

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Astrological Ouroboros by Paul Laffoley

Could be its all about plumbing the depths of puny human understanding or misunderstanding?

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Pomba-gira Maria Mulambo – Grande Circulo de Pontos Riscado [Whirling Dove Maria Mulambo – Great Circle of Scratched Points] by Barry William Hale

I could almost smell the incense burning.

November 30, 2015

Koffler Gallery – Isabel Rocamora

Yesterday was the last chance to see the Isabel Rocamora show – titled Troubled Histories, Ecstatic Solitudes – at the Koffler Gallery.  The exhibit, dominated by three large-scale video projections, opened way back on September 17, and it is utterly prescient in terms of its grave, unflinching tone and the subject matter it contains.

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Still from Body of War by Isabel Rocamora

In Body of War Isabel Rocamora probes the phenomenon of close-up brutality.  In an extended sequence the camera warily circles a fight to the death between two anonymous soldiers.  Staged on a barren runway beneath grey skies, this grim, slow battle confusingly becomes a kind of homoerotic dance from which there is no escape.  A soundtrack of medieval-like, choral chanting heightens the sense of ritual and archetype in this piece. Eventually a victor is left standing, panting and jubilant, and the camera turns away to slowly penetrate the opening of a nearby bunker.  The desultory movement toward darkness creates a truly horrifying moment.

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Stills from Horizon of Exile by Isabel Rocamora

In Horizon of Exile, a two channel video piece, snippets of monologue hint at the reasons a women must leave her home and set off into a barren, windswept desert.  Against an elegiac score and relentless wind, two women then perform a mesmerizing rolling dance, where they are carried like flotsam across a glittering salt flat in a God forsaken plain somewhere.

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Stills from Faith by Isabel Rocamora

An Orthodox Jew, a Greek Orthodox Christian and a Sunni Muslim are all engaged in prayer in Isabella Rocamora’s three channel loop called Faith.  Filmed in a craggy desert that reads “holy land” they are united in ancient transcendent practices.  The religious trappings – the robes, the gestures, the pious heavenward gazes, the fervent ritualized murmuring – are remarkably alike.  In fact not much is separating these men of God from one another, and yet, Isabel Rocamora seems to be saying, the superficial similarities are meaningless.  Tradition is terminally unique.

I really liked seeing this show: The stark graphic power, the rich soundscapes, the choreography of the camera and the subjects, and the potent imagery.  Ultimately the work struck me as very dark: The subjects are all unable to break out of age old oppression, each is condemned to endlessly repeat the rituals of the past and passively accept their fate.

Typology – Nicolas Fleming

Fortunately, it is possible to go shopping for handmade items on the third floor of Artspace Youngplace otherwise I would not have trekked upstairs and come across the tiny gallery called Typology.

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Installation shot of Moving Right Along by Nicolas Fleming

An installation by Nicholas Fleming called Moving Right Along is about to close.  I’m glad I caught this show.

Nicholas Fleming must be a very energetic guy.  He has built an entire room within the gallery, except that it is all delightfully backwards so that drywall, spackling paste, chipboard and insulation foam are on display and the smooth, white gallery walls with crisp corners and subtle lighting are hidden.  It’s kind of like putting a dress on inside out.

An unmistakable Home Depot fragrance wafts into the hallway from Typology.

I really liked looking at the “fountain” in the center of the space.  It has ghastly, poisonous look to it.  Something toxic appears to be weeping from the hardened foam to create a pool, coated in noxious sheen, at its base.

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Installation shots of Moving Right Along by Nicolas Fleming

No doubt Nicholas Fleming allies himself with Minimalism, Arte Povera and various Conceptual Art branches emerging in the 1970s but what is so interesting about this show to me is the exotic beauty created by these humble materials which leads to the whole idea of the infrastructure of our society and how it is hidden and denied and avoided, with perilous consequences.

April 19, 2015

A Space Gallery

Hermann Nitsch, the Austrian artist, born in 1938, and famous for his bloody “Aktions,” recently had a planned exhibition in Mexico City cancelled because of the protests of animal rights activists.  Torn apart animal carcasses, buckets of blood and offal, fake crucifixions, ritual animal slaughter are all part of Hermann Nitsch’s performance art.  Numerous volunteers assist in these events which are described as “life affirming mass intoxications.”  Old Hermann Nitsch began to do this work in the 60s as the Theatre of Orgies and Mysteries.  “Splatter paintings” by Hermann Nitsch are exhibited at the Saatchi Galleries in London.

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Hermann Nitsch

Here in Toronto’s A Space, in an exhibition titled A Non-Space at A Space, by the Art Collective Postcommodity, video documentation of the slaughter of a single sheep is on display.  Relative to a Hermann Nitsch bacchanalia, and its bloody methaphoric stew including the Catholic Church as well as Broadway, this is a simple act.  The sheep is butchered in the bathtub of the Gallup Motel by an attractive woman identified only as a former Miss Navajo beauty contestant.  We see Miss Navajo lead the docile animal from the sunny, southwestern exterior to the motel’s bathtub.  The animal’s throat is slit.  It quickly dies.  The carcass is expertly skinned and the body is rendered into meat.

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Stills from Gallup Motel Butchering by Postcommodity

Butchering of livestock is routine and takes place around the world in factories, farms and probably bathtubs. Ms. Navajo’s ancestors in Gallup, would have been slaughtering animals for many thousands of years in this region.  But not sheep.  Sheep are European imports.  Sheep arrived in North America around 1600. (I wrongly identified the animal as a goat in my original post.)  It would have been an entirely different kind of video – more action and adventure – if, for example, an antelope (actually a Pronghorn), indigenous to North America, were brought back to the Gallup Motel.

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Pronghorn (North American antelope)

The event in the motel room was recorded at various angles by at least four cameras.  The images are projected big and on every wall of the rather small space.  It’s oppressive, even alarming.  The viewer is hemmed in by the flashing knife, the gore, the tugging and snapping of bones, tendons, vertebrae as the blood circles the tub’s drain.  It struck me that this profound act, performed in a spirit of cultural empowerment, within the down market motel room, is enough.  The fast edits and multiple supersized screens are superfluous.

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Stills from video installation by Postcommodity Art Collective

In the room next door the Postcommodity Art Collective presents a two channel surveillance video of residences of the affluent middle class in the Santa Fe area called My Second Home, But I Have a Very Spitiual Connection With This Place.  (I love surveillance video and the quiet dark room was a relief after all the slaughter in the bathtub.)  I guess the point is the houses have that adobe look in historical accord with the surroundings.  I have never been to Santa Fe but oddly enough you can see the adobe look in some of the suburbs of Winnipeg, which takes appropriation to a whole other level.

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Winnipeg interpretation of the Santa Fe style

In the writing that accompanies the exhibition the terms “settlers” and “colonizers” are used.  The show’s curator, Ellyn Walker, in a short bio, is compelled to identify herself as a “settler” of Scottish and Italian descent.  What does this racial identification by the curator mean?  Is this the politically correct end game in which ancestry must declared and then judgement is passed?  I find this a depressing trend.

November 19, 2014

We are suddenly plunged into Polar Vortex hell, again.

I hurried through the steady snow in mild panic.

Vera Frenkel at MOCCA

Ways of Telling is the name of the MOCCA exhibition of Vera Frenkel’s work. The entirety of the MOCCA plant is packed to overflowing with Vera Frankel art pieces: There’s an early video piece in the lobby, curtained off with black drapes; two different books on Vera Frenkel’s art are prominently displayed and on sale at the reception desk; both of the large exhibition spaces are filled with Vera Frankel’s video projections, installations, numerous large collages and documentation of art pieces from the past.  Here and there holes are punched right through walls so the viewer doesn’t have to miss anything.

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Installation shots from Ways of Telling

An entire functioning “piano bar”, where you can actually get a drink and which contains everything (and more) that constitutes a real bar, has been constructed in one of the main rooms at MOCCA.

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 …from the Transit Bar

The hallway is a site for her work and if you leave through the rear exit you are obliged to pass through yet another Vera Frenkel piece.

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Installation shot of “The National Art Institute”

Even the bathroom contains an installation by Vera Frenkel.

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The most obvious constant in this plethora of output is Vera Frenkel’s voice. Throughout the galleries she can be heard everywhere. Refined, pleasant and carefully modulated this voice tells stories with an almost hypnotic quality. With uncanny intimacy and assurance the voice confides. You the listener and she the teller are well acquainted. She has definitely got your ear and she is going to tell you the whole story.

For me, coming from the West, her voice has a particular Ontario cadence, a certain lilt that is present only east of Kenora. But beneath all this self possessed Upper Canadian palaver there is determination, sometimes sorrow and often a growing rage.

In the large video projection called Once Near Water: Notes from the Scaffolding Archive Vera Frenkel explores long-standing anger directed at the greed that has defined the waterfront landscape in Toronto.  Through a complicated shaggy dog narrative she artfully discloses the facts.  Money and power win.  The lake disappears behind a grid of scaffolding.

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Once Near Water: Notes from the Scaffolding Archive

A piece entitled The National Art Institute, Or what we do for love is largely virtual.  The posters about the National Art Institute in the exhibition baffled me so I checked it out on the web.  The piece seems to have no beginning or end.  Like some bureaucratic nightmare it has its own smug logic and lots of deadends.  Looking through the website is quite fascinating but maddening in its elusiveness.  In trying to get a grip on the dystopic near future Vera Frenkel seems to be asking the viewer to share her anger and start a revolution.  Her ambivalence is not so much toward technology as it is toward the gatekeepers of technology.  As in Once Near Water, she objects to being cut off.

In The Blue Train – a multi-channel photo-text-video installation – recollections and imaginings are woven together as a fateful journey unfolds.  The images and sound have a wistful dreaminess and evoke the disorienting feelings that can overtake the traveller.

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The Blue Train

Travel and other kinds of dislocation are also the focus of …from the Transit Bar, originally created in 1992.  The lights are low.  The piano tinkles softly.  There is reading material and video, both in numerous languages.  It’s a haven for conversation or solitary reflection and the viewer is invited to indulge on their own terms.  …from the Transit Bar gets to the heart of Vera Frenkel’s work which is sometimes trenchant and always warm, human, generous and open to all.

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…from the Transit Bar