Fields of Gold

summer fieldsWith summer now upon us, a deeper meaning to a lighthearted season comes by way of some evocative lines by the great American poet Mary Oliver from her poem, “The Summer Day” — and its challenging conclusion:

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Photo: Stanislava Kyselova

Doctor of Sculpture

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“Alegria” sculpture in stainless steel

It’s not often that one runs across an artist who effortlessly bridges the seemingly polar-opposite fields of art and medicine.

When I saw the work of Colombian-born sculptor Santiago Medina, I was immediately captivated not only by the beauty of his pieces, but by the fact that he had a dual career as a physician and radiologist. And even more intriguing was his use of medical technology — in this case, computerized tomography (CT) and MRI scans — to help fashion the sinuous creations that have been featured at notable art-fair venues like Art Basel Miami and Arte America, and installed on the campuses of such exalted halls of higher learning as Harvard, Stanford, and Tufts.

The 51-year-old Medina has a history of forebears in the medical profession, but it was the grandfather who added art to his resume who was an inspiration to his similarly multitalented grandson, who went on to specialize in diagnostic radiology and neuroradiology (otherwise known as brain imaging). At the same time, Medina was building on the artistic training of his youth to pursue his goal of bringing “inert stainless steel to life by creating timeless masterpieces full of light and movement for art lovers.”

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Medina in his workshop

Medina cites the abstract painter Wassily Kandinsky, who was also an accomplished lawyer, as an archetype of the unusual path he was to follow, as well as the creative influences of Picasso and Brancusi, and — not surprisingly – the British sculptor Henry Moore, whose spirit can be felt in many of Medina’s monumental sculptures.

Of course, Moore would have been awestruck at the many facets of technology that can now be applied in the creation of art. Case in point is Medina’s distinctive use of digital imaging in the processing of his work. “Using medical imaging as part of my sculpture career and artistic expression arises from the highly sophisticated software that is available for medical imaging, specifically three-dimensional reconstructions,” he commented in a recent e-mail.

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“Alegria” as seen through a CT scan

“Once I’m done with the initial model for my sculptures in Styrofoam or clay, I scan them primarily with CT, which uses very low-dose radiation, to get images of the surface and inner structures of the sculpture model. I then export these images to a computer station where I use very advanced medical software to generate multiple three-dimensional reconstructions.

“Some of the reconstructions show the surface of the sculpture and others reveal the inner part of the sculpture with its supporting internal skeleton. I can then do multiple renditions of the original sculpture model. Modifications of the original model on the computer can then be recreated using a 3-D printer.”

The idea, Medina says, is to “take my sculptures to a completely new level, which enhances their volumetric appeal and sculptoric form.”

It’s a fascinating example of form following technological function, and in this case, brings new meaning to the phrase “breaking the mold.”

Kindred Spirits

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Mona with a twist: Dalí’s photographic self-portrait from 1954, right.

Two extraordinary creative minds, centuries apart, both united in their daring artistic visions. Leonardo da Vinci and Salvador Dalí may not immediately seem the most likely of pairings, but Dalí and da Vinci: Minds, Machines and Masterpieces, an exhibit at St. Petersburg, Florida’s Dalí Museum, brings home similarities in temperament and instinct that are deeper than they may initially seem.

Dalí’s affinity for da Vinci was both lifelong and indelibly felt, from his own version of the The Last Supper completed in 1955, to the “Hommage to Leonardo da Vinci” series, a celebration of inventions throughout the centuries in a portfolio from 1975. (His bow to da dali airplane 1975Vinci’s breakthroughs in the field of aerodynamics is illustrated in the “Airplane” sketch shown at left.)

Dalí is responsible for one of the more famous of the 20th-Century parodies of the Mona Lisa (to be joined later by  reproductions by artists such as Andy Warhol all the way to Banksy). His Self-Portrait as Mona Lisa, at top, is actually an image taken by Philippe Halsman, the renowned photographer and frequent Dalí collaborator. The concept, of course, is sheer Dalí, including the bag of coins that “Mona Dalí” holds in his/her lap. It’s the reason for the eternally enigmatic smile, the artist later said.

(It’s interesting to wonder what Dalí was up to with this spoof, as he curiously later published an article in Art News, “Why They Attack the Mona Lisa,” in which he defended the painting from such caricatures as Marcel Duchamp’s objet trouvé of the venerated masterpiece, where she’s depicted with a moustache and goatee.)

Ambitious, but with a sense of the whimsical, the Dalí and da Vinci exhibit groups the artists’ mutual themes of interest into several categories, such as Youthful Scientific Dispositions, Invention, and the Power of Mathematics. Dalí’s quasi-obsession with the Italian genius bridged the psychological as well; he was fascinated by Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, a work that one can assume had an outsized influence on the Surrealist movement and its wanderings into the subconscious. For Dalí, another of Freud’s essays, “Leonardo da Vinci: A Memory of His Childhood,” a psychoanalysis of Leonardo as a youngster, was revelatory — details from da Vinci’s youth found their way into the paintings of his adoring acolyte, hundreds of years later.

From early designs for bicycles and helicopters to perpetual-motion machines, da Vinci as inventor would have kept a modern trademark office working overtime. Dalí was no slouch in this department either. Among his out-there creations, not realized in his lifetime: a giant sphere, which would now be described as a sort of hamster ball, that humans could play around in. (As Peter Tush, the Dalí Museum’s curator of education recently quipped, “Now you can find them on Amazon.”)

In Dali’s own words, that were as true for himself as for his Renaissance alter ego: “The one thing the world will never have enough of is the outrageous.”

[Dalí and da Vinci: Minds, Machines and Masterpieces runs through July 26.]

Fateful Voyage

dead-wake Timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of one of history’s most famous maritime disasters Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania features Erik Larson’s typically thrilling you-are-there narrative style, adding to his noteworthy list of previous bestsellers that includes Thunderstruck, The Devil in the White City, and Isaac’s Storm.
Read the full review at Blogcritics.org

Dancing with Wolves

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Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell in “Wolf Hall,” airing on PBS

In Wolf Hall, the acclaimed series based on Hilary Mantel’s award-winning books about that Machiavellian manipulator of Tudor politics, Thomas Cromwell, the atmospherics consist of shadows. With sets lit only by candlelight and looking like something out of a Rembrandt painting, it brilliantly captures the dark and tangled web of intrigue, deception, and betrayal that characterized one of the most discussed periods in English history.

I left a comment the other day on the New York Times blog that’s been providing a weekly recap of the episodes, where I took umbrage with the writer’s observation that Wolf Hall is “Showtime’s ‘The Tudors’ without the bare breasts.” To compare thatwolf hall mayhem of outrageous historical license with this effort is — to hurl a common epithet from the Tudor era — heresy.

The production rests almost entirely on actor Mark Rylance’s engrossing portrayal of the man who rose to be Henry VIII’s right hand —  and hatchet man —  in the turbulent period of England’s separation from the Catholic Church, an event whose seeds were planted in 1527 with Henry’s request to the Pope for an annulment of his marriage to first wife, Catherine of Aragon. The king was ruthless in his desire to marry and make Anne Boleyn his second queen with the purpose of procuring a male heir, and tragic fates awaited many who dared to stand in his way. (Which ultimately included the very same woman who was the catalyst for all the bloodshed, as we know. There are no more apt words than Shakespeare’s “uneasy lies the head that wears a crown” when it comes to the eventually decapitated Boleyn.)

Throughout history, Thomas Cromwell has been portrayed rather one-dimensionally as an opportunistic facilitator for a monarch whose power lust grew to know no bounds. What sets this revisionist characterization apart are the psychological undertones that lend a certain humanity to a figure who’s been basically pigeonholed as a cold-blooded consigliere whose main job was handling Henry’s dirty work. (Indeed, the famous depiction by the court painter, Hans Holbein, of the stern-faced chief minister shows a man you probably wouldn’t want to cross.)

The Cromwell of Wolf Hall is keenly self-aware of his more devious personal traits (“Born sneaky. Can’t help it,” he impishly imparts at one point) yet is seemingly more wise pragmatist than cutthroat predator. Born of a blacksmith father who inflicted horrific beatings on a terrified son, losing a beloved wife and two daughters to the dreaded “sweating sickness” that played roulette on the English people throughout much of the 16th Century, Cromwell had seen enough to render him cynical of any of life’s illusions.

His world-weary eyes survey with precise intuition the characters at play in a royal court brimming with duplicity and covert machinations. But say what you will about his intentions, Cromwell was perversely loyal to those whom he pledged allegiance (though some may argue only as long as it served his purposes; he quickly threw Anne Boleyn under the horse when he saw Henry’s interest waning in her). That flagging interest paved the way to the Wolf Hall of the book’s title: the family estate of Jane Seymour, the woman next to be pursued by Henry as the plotting began to rid himself of Anne, with Cromwell as assiduous enabler.

Spoiler alerts don’t apply to historical events, so no warning is necessary to reveal that Cromwell was to meet the same destiny he so zealously imparted on others, when Henry had him executed in 1540. It’s just one of those twists of fate that are part of the reason the Tudor period has held a permanent fascination through the ages: the irony of Anne Boleyn, discarded and killed for failing to produce a male heir, but triumphing from the grave by way of her daughter Elizabeth I, eventually one of Britain’s greatest monarchs; the death soon after childbirth of Anne’s successor, Jane Seymour, who managed to produce a boy but lost her life in the process; her son, the future Edward VI, dying at the premature age of 15.

In another irony, Cromwell once wrote, “My prayer is that God give me no longer life than I shall be glad to use mine office in edification, and not in destruction.” Not sure many of his victims would have concurred with that thought, but it’s the side of Cromwell that Hilary Mantel chose to explore in Wolf Hall, and it’s what makes both her novels and this series, anchored by a magnificently nuanced performance, so memorable.

Wolf Hall (which wraps up on PBS next weekend) is a refreshingly intelligent and thoughtful recreation of a period of history which is so often farcically drawn with reckless disregard of the boundaries between truth and fiction. It’s a treat for serious-minded Tudor aficionados everywhere.

Horse Whispers

horsesThey’ve been a source of inspiration for artists since the beginning of time, and for Czech-born photographer Jitka Hanzlová, a deeply felt affinity for horses led to a series of images that focus on the enigmatic side of this most spirited of animals. A wisp of an ear, shown right, an omniscient eye surrounded by shadows, left, are parts of a moving whole both detached and quietly affecting. The artist, whose works often feature elements of distant isolation, says of her equine subjects, “Their stillness seems to be endless, far in their own time.” An exhibit featuring the pieces, entitled One to One, is on view at New York City’s Yancey Richardson Gallery through early next month.

Creative & Otherwise