PEM hires neuroscientist to enrich visitor experience

Tedi Asher

Dr. Tedi Asher

Groundbreaking initiative first in the museum world

By Shelley A. Sackett, correspondent

 

By his own admission, Dan Monroe is “afflicted with intense curiosity.” The Peabody Essex Museum executive director and CEO relaxes by intensely investigating fields unrelated to art and appreciation, such as quantum physics.

 

A few years ago, neuroscience caught his attention. After reading roughly 150 books and publications, it became clear to him that neuroscience has a direct role to play at PEM.

 

“What we essentially do is to create experiences of art and culture. We call them exhibitions and programs, but we are really creating experiences,” he said.

 

Since research shows that all experiences are created in our brains, he reasoned, if PEM wanted to remain at the forefront of designing meaningful, relevant and impactful art experiences, it would be a good idea to better understand how brains work.

 

Essentially, he thought that by getting inside visitors’ heads and figuring out how they felt, how they saw, what caught their attention and what they remembered, PEM could enrich their visits.

 

Plus, it would make the museum a more fun experience.

 

His team began experimenting with this new approach, adding innovative multi-sensorial elements to select exhibits. Professional dancers greeted visitors in the “Rodin: Transforming Sculpture” galleries, their movements and poses reflecting those of the sculptural works. “Asia in Amsterdam” showcased fragrant spices, a soundtrack conveying 17-th century Dutch life, storytelling and striking graphics.

 

The feedback was overwhelmingly positive.

 

“The dancers created a new kind of attention and a new avenue for people to appreciate and see sculpture,” he said, noting that the traditional way museums transmit information — through written labels — is not working. “If people read them at all, they spend an average of 2.5 seconds, even at the oversized introductory panels,” he said. He wanted a more transformative experience for the PEM guest and, based on visitor surveys, so did the public.

 

After the success of the Rodin and Asia shows, Monroe and his team decided to expand their reach. They applied for and received a $130,000 grant from the Barr Foundation, a Boston-based philanthropic organization, to launch the neuroscience initiative and delve deeper into using neuroscience research to enhance the way PEM designs exhibits.

 

The initiative enabled PEM to hire Dr. Tedi Asher, a neuroscientist who earned her Ph.D. from Harvard Medical School’s Biological and Biomedical Sciences program 2016, and joined PEM as its full-time Neuroscience Researcher in April. “To our knowledge, this is the first art museum in the world to hire a neuroscientist and put them on staff,” Monroe said.

 

Asher is thrilled with her first job outside the academic arena. “Where else but at art museums can one witness such breadth and depth of emotional experience?” she asked.

 

She was looking for a position that would allow her to creatively communicate neuroscience to non-scientists in a non-traditional teaching environment that would reach beyond academia and benefit the public at large.

 

“I came across PEM’s job ad and it seemed to fit that bill,” she said.

 

Asher’s primary academic focus has been studying emotion, starting as an undergraduate at Swarthmore College, where she studied learning and memory in the common fruit fly. Her doctoral work in neuroscience investigated aggressive behavior in mice.

 

At PEM, she will step out of the laboratory and explore how PEM can enhance and enrich the visitor experience by designing exhibits that will evoke human emotions, thereby leaving lasting impressions.

 

“Teri has a keen interest in using neuroscience to make the world a better place. She’s learning a great deal about art and culture and how museums work at the same time she’s teaching us about neuroscience and how brains work,” Monroe said.

 

Asher’s tasks are threefold. She will investigate how human brains are wired to appreciate art and how that information can be used to design exhibits that resonate on a personal level. She will then work with PEM staff, teaching them basic concepts that are relevant to their work as exhibition and program designers, such as how visual and attention systems work and how they relate to emotion. Finally, she will also pen a small publication to explain the concept behind the neuroscience initiative and its applicability to museums.

 

The skills she honed during schooling — particularly her ability to “mine the literature in an efficient and effective way” — will be key to her position. Specifically, she will be looking at the structure of the visual system and how that influences visual perception, asking questions such as, “What neurostructures allow us to regulate attention? What characterizes how we allocate attention with an experience like a museum visit?”

 

It will be then be up to PEM exhibit designers and staff to translate and incorporate that information into the museum’s installations.

 

The timing of Asher’s hire couldn’t be more perfect. PEM continues to undergo a comprehensive renovation and expansion project, featuring a 40,000 square-foot new wing of galleries, which will open in 2019. At the same time, Monroe explained, PEM is also in the process of refreshing its permanent collections, creating new installations of virtually all of them.

 

“The entire experience at PEM will be new, based on ideas we’re deriving from neuroscience and other fields,” he said. Asher will assist in this overhaul too.

 

Since 2003, PEM has used The Morey Group to measure overall visitor satisfaction through a standardized survey tool used within the museum industry. Among the 80 museums tracked by Morey, PEM is head and shoulders above the rest, ranking number one every year since 2003.

 

“We’ve long been pursuing innovative approaches,” Monroe explained modestly, adding, “but the neuroscience initiative is a distinctive one.”

 

Monroe credits the neuroscience initiative with motivating PEM to shift gears away from written text and towards better and more storytelling. “Stories are the glue that holds us together as social animals. Good stories elicit emotion and emotion is really critical,” he said.

Pleasure and Pain: Not All Shoes Are Meant for Walking

 

If, as Mark Twain said, “Clothes makes the man”, then the Peabody Essex Museum’s newest exhibit is full throttle support for a complementary adage: “Shoes make the woman”.

“Shoes: Pleasure and Pain” showcases 300 pairs of shoes by more than 130 designers and artists that range from the sublime to the ridiculous, from the comfortable to the downright punishing. Although men’s shoes are represented with bling and panache, over 70% of the exhibit is devoted to women’s shoes.

With its recent acquisition of 20th– and 21st-century fashion, PEM has the largest shoe collection in the country. Over 100 are included in the exhibit, many of which have never been displayed before.

“We are in the process of building a fashion presence at PEM,” said Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, PEM’s James B. and Mary Lou Hawkes Deputy Director and coordinating curator for the exhibition. “There is a growing appetite for compelling exhibitions about fashion.”

Organized by the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, the PEM show marks its U.S. debut and will run through March 12, 2017.

Curated by themes, the five-section show (Transformation, Status, Seduction, Creation and Obsession) features shoes worn by high profile celebrities such as David Beckham, Elton John, Queen Elizabeth and Princess Diana. Among the artists and designers represented are Manolo Blahnik (of “Sex and the City” notoriety), Christian Louboutin (with his signature red soles), Christian Dior, Jimmy Choo and Prada. Combat boots and sneakers share center stage with stilettos and seductive boudoir mules.

 

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Beaded evening shoes by Roger Vivier for Christian Dior, 1958-1960.

 

It is the pairing of designer and consumer that is at the heart of the exhibit. “Shoes are about the personal creativity of the designer and the person who wears that shoe. It’s a partnership between two people who likely never meet. Creation is about communication,” Hartigan said.

The shoes on display aren’t just meant to protect feet and promote locomotion. They are also projections of the mood, identity and status of the wearer. “Shoes are extensions of ourselves,” she added.

Blahnik’s Mondrian-inspired red and yellow “Tendona” shoes would be conversation-stoppers at any gathering as would Louboutin’s impossibly high-heeled “Anemone” design, with its red satin bursts and feathers. The shoes seem molded to fit a Barbie doll’s nonhuman foot, and in fact, Barbie does have her very own accessory line of three Louboutin designs.

 

Manolo Blahnik , 'Tendona' shoe, 2015. Leather. Courtesy of Manolo Blahnik

“Tedona” by Manolo Blahnik, 2015, made of leather and on loan from the designer..

 

These shoes aren’t meant for the average consumer (even Barbie’s version retails for $35). With starting prices of $700, they are associated with more than female sexuality and power. “High heels have always been worn by rich people of high society,” said Hartigan, noting that the Egyptians first developed platform shoes in 3500 B.C. so the wealthy could be seen as walking high off the ground.

Historians looking for more than the dazzle of sequins and crystals (yes, there is even a Swarovski Cinderella glass slipper) can linger among the lotus shoes made for bound feet, 16th century chopines and men’s shoes with noisy slap-soles that were worn in Europe in the 17th century.

 

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Chopines by an artist in Venice, Italy, about 1600 made of punched leather and pine.

 

Fashionistas will delight in the chance to see Vivienne Westwood’s dramatically exaggerated lace-up blue platform heels that famously caused model Naomi Campbell to stumble on a Paris runway in 1993. A picture of Campbell good-naturedly laughing after her very public tumble is part of the display.

 

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The Vivienne Westwood blue, platform-heeled “Super Elevated Gillie” shoes that caused Naomi Campbell’s infamous 1993 Paris catwalk show tumble.

 

The exhibit also has a distinctive local flavor, acknowledging New England’s importance as a shoe manufacturing center and featuring selections from the late Boston style maven Marilyn Riseman and noted North Shore collectors Jimmy Raye and Lillian Montalto Bohlen.

Turning momentarily serious, the section “Seduction” shines a spotlight on the often-blurred lines between objectification and celebration of women’s sexuality. Inspired by bondage and 18th century prostitution, mules and high heels have always represented both passion and exploitation.

Perhaps the most extreme example of this is “Fetish”, an unwearable pair of stilettos created by Louboutin in collaboration with film director David Lynch, whose signature style (“Blue Velvet”, “Twin Peaks”) is darkly twisted sensuality. The only way one can wear these shoes is by crawling. A picture of a woman doing just that is part of the exhibit.

 

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“Fetish” by Louboutin in collaboration with David Lynch.

 

Walking through the galleries, it’s evident that while the lion’s share of shoes is designed for women, the designers are predominantly men. Although high heels may empower and literally elevate women, they can do so at a cost of permanent back and foot problems.

Asked whether he has sympathy for women who wear his designer high heels, Louboutin was unambiguous in a 2012 interview with “Grazia” magazine. “High heels are pleasure with pain. If you can’t walk in them, don’t wear them,” he scoffed.

Or, as a shoe designer in ancient Roman times (when high heels were popular with both men and women) might have put it, “caveat emptor”.

Shoes: Pleasure and Pain runs through March 12, 2017 at the Peabody Essex Museum, 161 Essex St., Salem. For more information, visit pem.org.

PEM’s “Asia in Amsterdam” Exhibit is a Feast for the Senses

 

Shelley A. Sackett

 

“It started with spices from Asia…” reads the inscription above a display of glass columns of cinnamon, clove and peppercorns that greet the visitor to “Asia in Amsterdam: The Culture of Luxury in the Golden Age”, the latest world-class exhibition at the Peabody Essex Museum. And indeed, the 200 extraordinary examples of paintings, textiles, ceramics, silver, lacquerware, furniture, jewelry and books would never have found their way from their native Asia to 17th century Dutch households were it not for the spice trade that originated in Amsterdam and single-handedly created the Dutch Golden Age.

 

GoldenBend

The “Golden Bend” in the Herengracht, Amsterdam, 1671-1672. Gerrit Adriansz. Berckheyde.

 

The exhibit, five years in the making and co-organized by the Rijksmuseum of Amsterdam, runs through June 5. PEM is the exclusive U.S. venue. Founded less than a year apart – in 1798 and 1799 – the Dutch and Salem museums boast world-renowned Asian export art collections inextricably linked to early international trade, and pieces from both collections form the backbone of the exhibit.

 

 

Thanks to the painstaking work of a team of 35 talented PEM staff members, “Asia in Amsterdam” navigates the complex story of the transformative influence Asian luxuries had on Dutch art and life in bite-sized chunks. Combining lessons in history, sociology, economics, arts and crafts, the galleries are logically organized to tell a seamless story. The animated maps, interactive digital displays and short films add a deeper access to the material.

cellaret

Cellaret. Batavia (Jakarta, Indonesia), with flasks from Arita, Japan, 1680-1700. Calamander with silver mounts and velvet lining, and porcelain.

It all started with pepper, nutmeg and cloves and the Dutch East India Company (Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie, or VOC) that was set up in 1602 to import them from the Maluku Islands in Indonesia back to the Netherlands. Before long, the VOC was the most powerful and largest trade and shipping company in the world, employing more than 400,000 Dutch and other European and Asian workers. The exhibit minces no words about VOC’s relentless and, at times, ruthless pursuit of profit at the expense of the local people. The toll of human suffering casts a dark shadow over these sparkling jewels.

 

Soon, in addition to spices and tea, the VOC began importing costly textiles, porcelain, lacquer and silver from China, India, Japan, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Vietnam. For the austere Dutch Protestants, who were used to eating from heavy stoneware and wearing drab wool and linen clothing, the introduction of gossamer thin brightly colored Indian cotton, feather light and elegant Chinese porcelain and elaborate lacquered coffers inlaid with mother of pearl and other exotic materials suddenly turned their monochromatic world into Technicolor. Amsterdam quickly became the seat of global economy and enormous wealth.

Palampore

Cotton embriodered with silk and metal-wrapped threads. Palampore. Deccan, India, 1710-1750.

 

“One can only imagine the delight and amazement that these imports must have inspired in the Netherlands,” said Karina Corrigan, PEM’s H.A. Crosby Forbes Curator of Asian Export Art. Gallery after gallery is chockfull of examples of the lavish Asian imports the Dutch consumer suddenly couldn’t live without. Paintings by Dutch artists illustrate how the wealthy incorporated these sensual delights into their everyday lives. Fashionable Dutch men wore silk Japanese robes, Dutch women hosted elaborate Chinese tea parties, and room after room of wealthy Dutch households boasted the items on display. Many built special “porcelain display rooms” to show off their collections. Even Rembrandt van Rijn was “a phenomenal shopper”, collecting Asian objects and Indian miniature painting, which inspired many of his drawings and etchings.

 

Perhaps the best (and most amusing) example of the new European opulence and swagger is a sumptuous lacquer crate inlaid with mother of pearl that opens to reveal a portable commode, complete with red velvet and gilded mounts. Built in the 17th century and later modified in France, it found a special niche at the Chateau de Versailles.

 

Youngwoman

Paulus Moreelse. “Portrait of a Young woman”, about 1620.

 

Another example of the colossal obsession with materiality is Paulus Moreelse’s “Portrait of a Young Woman.” Apparently, his young unknown subject (rumored to be port of the court of the House of Orange-Nassau) couldn’t decide what to wear for this portrait, causing her severe anxiety lest she appear too austere. The diamond brooch from India with its 208 gems hopefully set her young mind at rest.

 

 

The array of objects and their sensual allure is at times overwhelming. While the exotic and intriguing imports reflect the VOC’s global reach and the Dutch voracious appetite for its bounty, “Asia in Amsterdam” doesn’t simply admire these objects. It goes one step further, examining their revolutionary impact on the Dutch imagination and way of life in an unobtrusive but instructive way.

 

As Amsterdam’s status as the epicenter of global trade grew, so did its prosperous population, and innovations that reached into all facets of life both in Europe and throughout the world followed. With so much porcelain in the Netherlands, even common people could afford to use it daily. Asian spices both brightened Dutch palates and revised how Europeans treated illnesses. Amsterdam became the center of the publishing world, growing from one publishing house in 1570 to 129 by the year 1670. Dutch books, sold throughout Europe, fueled curiosity about the wider world, especially Asia.

CoveredBowl.org

Covered Bowl. Jingdezhen, China. Porcelain.

 

Dutch artists and artisans appropriated the material Asian culture, representing it in still-life paintings, delftware and furniture. Dutch design of textiles, silver and lacquer were not far behind.

 

 

 

The “Thought Leaders” section of the exhibition is particularly interesting. It considers the ramifications of exposure to the worlds of far off places, including their peoples, plants, animals, religions and medical practices, on Dutch scholars. Adding a soothing musical layer is “The Golden Dream: 17th Century Music from the Low Countries,” by the Newberry Consort with Marion Verbruggen and Paul O’Dette, which plays in the background.

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Cradle. Coromandel Coast, India, 1650-1700. Ebony and Ivory.

 

The exhibit ends as it began, with contemplative words painted on a wall. “At certain times, great achievements in art, science and commerce come together to define a golden age,” it reads. Against a backdrop listing Renaissance Florence, Mughal India, the Tang Dynasty and 1920’s New York City, it asks the visitor to consider where and when the next big movement might come.

 

To think, it could all start with something as small as spices.

For more information, go to pem.org.

 

Native Fashion on the PEM Runway

 

 

When Karen Kramer, Peabody Essex Museum’s Curator of Native American and Oceanic Art and Culture, went to Santa Fe’s annual Indian Market, a traditional Native American juried show, she sensed there was a new, exciting movement afoot. It was edgier, unexpected and non-ceremonial.

 

Instead of the usual fare of beadwork, basketry and textiles, she noticed a new trend in contemporary Native American art, especially around fashion. “What I was seeing was fresh, relevant and a little bit sexy,” she said. “Native American designers were updating traditional ideas and making them their own.”

 

She wanted to curate an exhibit to showcase these innovative, pioneering Native fashion designers whose high-energy works break traditional boundaries with materials and invention that go far beyond the stereotypic buckskin, feathers, beads and fringe. “Contemporary Native fashion designers are dismantling and upending familiar motifs, adopting new forms of expression and materials, and sharing their vision of Native culture and design with a global audience,” Kramer said.

 

Kramer’s dream is now a reality with her curated show, “Native Fashion Now”, at PEM through March 6. Over two years in the planning, it is the first full-scale exhibit to chronicle the contemporary Native American fashion movement over the past 60 years. The show features over 70 artists and after debuting at PEM, will travel for two years to Oregon, Oklahoma and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in New York City.

 

One of the most unusual aspects of “Native Fashion Now” is the fact that of the 74 artists exhibited, 71, or 95 percent, are living.

 

PEM1

Orlando Dugi (Dine Navajo). Photo by Shelley A. Sackett

 

With over 100 garments, shoes, pocketbooks, jewelry, scarves and accessories displayed on 40 mannequins, the exhibit feels like a Native American “Project Runway”- which, in a way, it is. Fans of the television show may recognize the white leather sheath dress that greets visitors on their arrival inside the exhibit. It is the one designed by Patricia Michaels, the Taos Pueblo artist who was the first Native American contestant on the reality TV hit show in 2013. The judges loved the dress, which Michaels hand painted with an abstract New York skyline.

 

Michaels is delighted that mainstream fashion lovers are embracing Native American design. “We don’t have to be stuck in this gunny sack look anymore,” she said with a smile. Kramer said that the groundbreaking Michaels’ work was the most fitting way to kick off the exhibition, and commissioned her to design the cascading parasols that lead up to the show’s entrance.

 

The exhibition’s four galleries — Pathbreakers, Revisitors, Activators and Provocateurs — reflect how designers respond to ideas and trends in the world of Native fashion. All take us to similar places, far away from buckskin and fringe, especially Provacateurs, whose departure from convention makes works that are experimental and one-of-a-kind.

 

Lloyd “Kiva” New, the Cherokee designer and first true “Pathbreaker”, blazed a trail with his delicate shirtwaist dresses. Their display pays homage to the designer’s 1950s creation of his high-fashion brand, the first Native American to do so. Their timeless style is just as fresh today.

 

Activators, who embrace an everyday, personal style that engages with today’s trends and politics, are represented in the third gallery by street wear, skates and a pop culture liveliness. Navajo Jared Yazzie’s bold T-shirt with “Native Americans Discovered Columbus” emblazoned on its front turns the familiar saying on its head by encouraging people to think about the truths of history.

 

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Pat Pruitt (Laguna Pueblo) and Chris Pruitt (Laguna Pueblo/Chiricahua Apache). Belt buckle, 2012. Stainless steel, silver,Teflon, turquoise, and coral. © 2015 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Walter Silver.

 

Jeweler and metal smith Pat Pruitt, a member of the Laguna Pueblo, was trained as a mechanical engineer and worked in the body piercing industry before starting to make jewelry in the 1990s. His use of non-precious metals, like titanium, zirconium and stainless steel, creates pieces that are radically different from the traditional Native turquoise and silver jewelry.

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Jewelers Kristen Dorsey (Chicksaw) and Pat Pruitt (Pueblo) at the PEM “Native Fashion Now” opening.

 

 

Pruitt told the story (repeated by most of the artists who were present at the show’s press opening) about how his creations were not allowed into Native American art shows because they were “not Native enough.” He praised Kramer’s vision in creating the opportunity to showcase the individuality of the Native designer in the context of their tribal identity. “The Native art world wants me to fit in with their stereotype,” he said, pausing. “But individuality and self expression is part of our tradition.

 

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Jamie Okuma (Luiseño/Shoshone-Bannock). Boots, 2013–14. Glass beads on boots designed by Christian Louboutin. Museum commission with support from Katrina Carye, John Curuby, Dan Elias and Karen Keane, Cynthia Gardner, Merry Glosband, and Steve and Ellen Hoffman, 2014.44.1AB. © 2015 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Walter Silver.

 

Although Shoshone-Bannock Jamie Okuma’s beaded boots, commissioned for the exhibition, are riveting in their intricacy and beauty, they are not focus of the “Revisitors” gallery, named for the artists’ fresh, new and expanded take on tradition. Rather, it is the two pieces by non-Native designers — Ralph Lauren and Isaac Mizrahi — Kramer included in order to spark conversation about cultural appropriation and borrowing that draw the audience’s attention.

 

“It’s a complex topic,” Kramer said, noting that some mainstreamers feel that certain Native American cultural icons should be off limits to non-Native designers. For example, Mizrahi’s flannel gown, embroidered as the totem pole that honors North West Native families, could be viewed as offensive by traditionalists. On the other hand, his use of a sacred Native icon could be viewed as mainstream fashion’s acceptance of Native American design, using new materials to update a traditional idea and create something entirely new. “It’s meant to open a dialogue,” Kramer explained, clearly delighted that her inclusion of the piece in the exhibit had already done just that.

 

While the dynamic and lively exhibit shines a light on what Kramer has called a “Native American fashion renaissance”, the real spotlight is on the individuality of these contemporary designers’ inspirations as they reference their tradition while transcending culture and stereotyping. “We can choose whether we present our culture in our art and what that art means to us,” said Pruitt. “PEM is a museum that recognizes individuality. They get it,” added Michaels.

 

Pictured at top:

Orlando Dugi (Diné [Navajo]). Cape, dress, and headdress from “Desert Heat” Collection, 2012. Paint, silk, organza, feathers,beads, and 24k gold; feathers; porcupine quills and feathers. Courtesy of the designer, Sante Fe. Hair and makeup: DinaDeVore. Model: Julia Foster. Photography by Unék Francis.

Native Fashion Now runs through March 6 at the Peabody Essex Museum, 161 Essex St., Salem. For more information, visit pem.org.

 

 

“Strandbeests” on the Loose at PEM’s Groundbreaking New Exhibit

By Shelley A. Sackett / salem@wickedlocal.com

Americus Umericus, Scheveningen beach, Netherlands (2009). Courtesy of Theo Jansen. Photo by Loek van der Klis.

SALEM

When the Peabody Essex Museum’s Trevor Smith encountered Dutch artist Theo Jansen’s jaw-dropping Strandbeests (“beach animals”), he knew he had to bring them to PEM. Like most people, Smith first saw them on the Internet, “walking” sideways on Scheveningen Beach in The Hague. He was hooked on the spot.

“I wanted to show what makes perpetual motion possible and that there is great inspiration in the world,” Smith said. “We all have ideas; we all have creativity. Theo is the poster child for Present Tense Initiative. He is the personification of the blending of the arts.”

The PEM’s Present Tense Initiative, curated by Smith, celebrates the central role that creative expression plays in shaping the world today, and pushes the boundaries of what a museum experience can be.

Four years in the making, “Strandbeest: The Dream Machines of Theo Jansen” opens on Saturday, Sept. 19 and is the first large-scale presentation of Jansen’s Strandbeests in the U.S. With its multi-sensory approach that invites touching and playing, it is a must-see exhibit for all ages.

“I wanted an exhibit that would be hands on and contemplative with zones of the intellectual and experiential, which I hope will translate to our audience,” said Smith. With multi-media displays, large-scale kinetic sculptures, artist sketches, immersive video and photography by Lena Herzog, the Russian photographer who spent more than seven years documenting the Strandbeests’ evolution, Smith’s goal is exceeded.

Trevor Smith (left), PEM Curator of the Present Tense, and Theo Jansen, creator of Strandbeests. (Shelley A. Sackett)

Trevor Smith (left), PEM Curator of the Present Tense, and Theo Jansen, creator of Strandbeests. (Shelley A. Sackett)

Jansen defies pigeonholing. He is a magician, a physicist, an artist, an engineer, a philosopher, a theologian, and a choreographer, and he calls on all these personae to create his kinetic universe where pistons, crankshafts and complex leg systems transform inert plastic tubing into living beings that dance at the ocean’s edge.

Using lightweight PVC, which is common in Dutch households, and zip ties, Jansen has invented a new species that he describes as “migration animals that have a lot of patience.” Visitors marvel and empathize with these fragile, skeletal creatures that capture imaginations and pull at heartstrings.

Twenty-five years ago, Jansen, wearing his physicist’s hat, set out to design a machine that could pile sand onto the Dutch eroding coastline. The utilitarian project was meant to take one year. Instead, his Strandbeests hit a very deep chord in Jansen’s psyche, reminding him of the origins of life and inspiring him to create an entire new species, complete with life cycles, evolutionary adaptations, fossil records and, despite their Star Wars appearance, deep roots in reality.

The author with one of the many hands-on exhibits (John Andrews/Social Palates (socialpalatesphotography.com)

The author with one of the many hands-on exhibits (John Andrews/Social Palates (socialpalatesphotography.com)

“I dreamed that I would give a new specimen to the world,” Jansen told members of the press at a preview of his exhibit. Normally, evolution takes millions of years to occur, but Jansen recently decided to share the genetic algorithm (the Strandbeest’s DNA, which he refers to as his “holy numbers”) that he created on his Atari computer in order to speed up and enrich the process.

“Thousands of students have been making Strandbeests since I published the DNA on the website. That’s how Strandbeests reproduce and survive the wind; they are sitting on students’ shelves,” Jansen said with the seriousness of a biology professor. “These mutants that are created by students might reproduce faster than mine, discovering a solution to survival on the beach.” He estimates that over the next 20 years, the animals will evolve to a point where they can exist on their own.

When Jansen talks about his creatures, the line blurs between fantasy and reality, invention and nature. His Strandbeests are “like my children. You create them, you nurture them, and then you kick them out of the house to live their own lives,” he said with a hint of a smile. He has created a phylogenetic family tree and evolutionary periods with names like the Strap Period, the Hot Period and the Less Hot Period. If Theodor Seuss Geisel had been an engineer, he might have been team-teaching with Jansen.

At the end of the presentation, Jansen stood in front of one of his Strandbeests and in what was the evening’s greatest understatement said, “You can see that I’ve been working hard the last few years.”

Strandbeest: The Dream Machines of Theo Jansen opens Sept. 19 at the Peabody Essex Museum, 161 Essex St., Salem. The exhibit will run through Jan. 3, after which it will travel to the Chicago Cultural Center and San Francisco’s Exploratorium. For more information, visit pem.org/strandbeest.

PEM Hires National Gallery of Art Curator

By Shelley A. Sackett / salem@wickedlocal.com

Peabody Essex Museum has appointed Sarah Kennel, Ph.D., as its new curator of photography. Kennel joins the PEM this month after a nine-year curatorial tenure at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., where she helped oversee the National Gallery’s permanent collection and managed an active exhibition program.

“Sarah’s comprehensive knowledge of the artistic and technological history of the medium, combined with her appetite for the interdisciplinary and photography’s dialogue with multiple art forms, will advance PEM’s reputation as a top-flight cultural destination that provides fascinating, provocative experiences with photography,” said Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, PEM’s James B. and Mary Lou Hawkes Chief Curator, in a press release.

Kennel, who holds a Ph.D. in art history from the University of California in Berkley and an undergraduate degree from Princeton University, is excited by PEM’s vast 800,000-piece photography collection.

“The sheer number of photographs in the collection is both exhilarating and daunting,” Kennel said by e-mail. “I am also intrigued by such a rich and unusual collection that has been formed so early, relative to other photography collections, and yet remains to be fully explored.”

She is particularly interested in the significant collections of 19th-century photographs made in Asia. Although the traditional history of photography centers on France, Britain and, to a lesser extent, America, it was, she pointed out, a global medium that traveled across the world and was adapted in many different ways for different purposes.

“I think the PEM’s collection can illuminate this complex story and also help us understand the widespread appeal and importance of photography from its origins to today — it was, from 1839 on, the most social of media,” she said.

Kennel is known for curating interdisciplinary exhibitions that pair photography with, for example, dance, costumes, textiles, film and music. While her primary focus will be on the photography collection and organizing exciting photography exhibitions, she looks forward to bringing this penchant for interdisciplinary displays to the PEM.

“After all,” she said, “the museum has been a leader in unconventional, exciting, mixed media installations. I think the first order of business will be to collaborate with my colleagues across the museum to integrate photography into mixed-media displays in the galleries, a goal that is already in place, but I am always thinking about how photography interacts and resonates with different forms of visual culture. I am especially interested in the rich relationship between photography, the birth of early film and the historical avant-garde — we’ll see where it goes.”

When Kennel was 4 years old, her father, a physicist, accepted a one-year sabbatical appointment in Paris. She recalled being dazzled by the cultural riches of Paris and its surroundings and is eager to collaborate with colleagues to come up with exhibitions that appeal to a wide range of audiences and offer different points of entry.

“Exhibitions that introduce us to different worlds — that help us enter an imaginative space, a different time, a different mindset — can be very powerful for everyone, but especially young minds as they seek to understand and interpret the world. And integrating a hands-on component somewhere is important — what better way than to learn than by doing? That being said, I didn’t need bells and whistles to fall in love with art when I was 4. I only needed the opportunity and access — so that’s the crucial first step. Every child should have the opportunity to explore and discover great works of art,” she said.

Kennel is excited to join the PEM team at a time when the museum is poised for a major expansion. “I love that the PEM is such a central part of the cultural life of the region, and I can’t wait to be a part of it. As a Los Angeles native, I also welcome tips on surviving the Massachusetts winters,” she said.

PEM Thomas Hart Benton Exhibit a Dramatic Slice of Americana

“Hollywood” — The 1937-38 Life magazine commission is the centerpiece of the Peabody Essex Museum’s exciting new exhibit.

For Thomas Hart Benton, history was not a scholarly study, but a drama. The bold and ambitious artist was, at heart, a terrific storyteller who could connect his audience to characters. His medium was painting and his subject matter was anything identified with American culture, from Native Americans and the Wild West to the Jim Crow South to Hollywood and its glamorous movie industry. The not-to-be-missed new show at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem takes a multi-media approach to a most remarkable artist’s work and life.

Benton (1889-1975) was born in Missouri where he served as a congressman before leaving to attend the Art Institute in Chicago, later moving to Paris to continue his studies. His first major mural series, “American Historical Epic,” retold America’s history through his uniquely satirical, provocative and serious eye. Although it was a commercial failure (he had painted it on spec), it established him as an artist capable of producing large public works.

Benton and Rita

“Self Portrait with Rita” — The self-portrait of Benton and his wife that made the coveted cover of Time magazine in 1934.

His self-portrait with his wife, Rita, landed Benton on the cover of Time magazine in 1934 and skyrocketed his career. The painting, which greets the visitor at the exhibit’s entrance, is quintessential Benton. The modeled figures pay homage to the Italian Renaissance masters, whose methods Benton adopted by making clay models and painting from them in his studio. The couple expresses the ultimate modern American identity: modern, outdoorsy, and dazzlingly stylish. Yet there is something aloof in their gazes and Benton’s faceless watch leaves the viewer wondering what might be amiss.

His provocative and gifted paintings (and the fact that he had adorned its rival’s cover) caught the eye of Life magazine editors, who commissioned him in 1937 to spend a month in Hollywood preparing for a “movie mural” which would be the centerfold of its issue about the glitzy new industry. The painting is the centerpiece of the PEM exhibit’s most entertaining section devoted to all things cinematic, including clips of movies (“Last of the Mohicans”, “America”, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and “The Big Trail”, and especially, “Grapes of Wrath”) for which Benton painted the official publicity poster.

His tongue-in-cheek approach to the industry and his amazing power of observation are a delight to behold. His attention to wacky details and ability to generate emotion while telling an engaging story create compelling images that border on caricature, much as the movies of that era did. Nonetheless, upon closer inspection of the captivating painting, it becomes clear that Benton was more interested in telling the stories of the ordinary people behind the scenes rather than those of the screen stars.

Within a single career, Benton embraced many styles and immersed himself in many genres, all on display in the informative and expertly staged exhibition. The modern mythmaker explored the macho, grotesque violence of World War II with a style akin to Marvel Comic superheroes and super villains. He also portrayed the innocence and optimism of the young American boys shipped overseas to confront those demons. His renditions of the plight and contributions of the “modern Negro” tell tales of slavery, romance and jazz.

Between 1946 and 1975 Benton completed nine more murals. He was in the midst of finishing his last commission for the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville when he died at age 85.

“American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood” runs through September 7.

The Queen of Accessories Reigns

Iris Apfel in her museum-like apartment


I
ris Apfel is more than the sum of her parts in the same way a unicorn is not just a horse with a horn. She trails magic dust and casts a mysterious shadow in filmmaker Albert Maysles’ (“Gimme Shelter,” “Grey Gardens”) outstanding valentine, “Iris,” the documentary pioneer’s last movie before he died in March at 88 years old.


By contrast, Apfel shows no signs of slowing down. At 93 years old, the pint-sized nonconformist with the signature oversized round glasses still trolls Harlem (albeit from a wheelchair and with a driver) in pursuit of the perfect addition to her madcap collection of contemporary fashion. (“My mother worshipped at the altar of the accessory,” she deadpans).

“I like to improvise,” she explains in the opening scene, as she vamps for the camera and concocts “another mad outfit” she might wear to a party. “I always think I do things like I’m playing jazz.” As she layers enormous amber and silver necklaces and bracelets onto her birdlike frame, the audience marvels as much at her ability to remain upright as at the final quirky ensemble.

Born into a middle-class Jewish family in Astoria, Queens, in 1921, Iris Barrell developed her fearless sense of individuality and style as a child, helping her fashion boutique owner mother dress windows and accompanying her importer father to jobs at Elsie de Wolfe’s legendary interior design studio. She studied fine arts at New York University and eventually began a fabulously successful interior design business.

Early on, a mentor singled her out and bluntly told her that although she wasn’t pretty, she had something more important because it would outlast her looks: she had style. Apfel has been taking that piece of advice to the bank ever since, inventing and re-inventing her unique self.

In 1948, she married Carl Patel, an advertising executive, and together they founded Old World Weavers, a fabric manufacturing firm, after Apfel couldn’t find the fabrics and furnishings she envisioned for her many high-end clients. The two spent over half a century traveling and collecting.

Their palatial Park Avenue apartment and Palm Beach home are brimming with the eclectic fruits of their shopping expeditions. The overflow is housed in a storage loft.

In 2005, The New York Metropolitan Museum of Art approached Apfel. The 600-piece show, “Rare Bird of Fashion: The Irreverent Iris Apfel,” traveled to various museums after its New York run, arriving at Salem’s Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) in 2009.

Apfel fell in love with PEM. “It was the climax [of the show’s tour]. They have soaring ceilings and they did a really great job,” she remarks in the film. She subsequently bequeathed the entire show plus more to the museum, substantially expanding and modernizing its permanent textiles and fashion department.

The collection and its final resting place are important to Apfel. “This is a very personal collection. I wore almost everything in it. It’s nice to see where it’s going,” she says. An additional bequest will fund a fashion gallery in the PEM’s new wing that is slated to open in 2017.

Although several academic talking heads analyze and pay homage to Apfel’s pioneering contributions (“She is the perfect example of the intersection of fashion, interior design and art,” comments Margaret Russel, “Architectural Digest” editor), it is Apfel whose pithy asides cut to the chase.

Putting together the right outfit requires skill and chutzpah. “I’m brazen,” she explains as she bargains shamelessly with a street vendor for a bauble she cannot live without and then whips out her gold American Express card to pay for it. She is also serious with a firmly embedded work ethic. “It’s hard work. Everything I have, I have to go out and find,” she says.

Apfel’s credo is that fashion should be fun. “You might as well amuse people when you dress,” she comments as she pairs priceless tribal vestments with a plastic ladybug bracelet she found at a flea market. Her flamboyant and self-confident free spirit is infectious.

Although Apfel’s larger-thanlife persona could devour the screen for the film’s 83 minutes, the moments when we glimpse her sweet and trusting relationship with director Maysles temper her nonstop chatter and activity. The few scenes when she silently turns to the camera are the film’s most intimate.

“Iris” is a playful, entertaining and beautifully shot film of a woman who has spent her life marching to her own drummer and, at age 93, is still living her dream. Recommended.

Check local theaters for times.

PEM’s Calder Exhibit a Dance in Slow Motion

Peabody Essex Museum’s exclusive East Coast presentation of “Calder and Abstraction: From Avant-Garde to Iconic” is everything an art exhibit should be. It is welldesigned, sensually pleasing and intellectually stimulating. The 40 pieces by one of the most influential and innovative artists of the 20th century reinforce PEM’s commitment to American art and celebrate Alexander Calder’s contribution of single-handedly transforming what would be thereafter thought of as “sculpture.”

Visiting the show is like entering an elegant abstract landscape, one where shadows have mass and gravity is irrelevant. The theatrical, dancing mobiles, which Calder invented, and stabiles (grounded pieces that still move) activate time and space in a way that creates an atmosphere of performance. Background avantgarde music by such composers as John Cage adds to the multi­sensory experience.

Calder was raised in Pennsylvania and his family included accomplished sculptors. He travelled to Paris frequently during the 1920’s and 30’s, befriending such surrealist and abstract artists as Joan Miro, Jean Arp and Marcel Duchamp. When he saw Piet Mondrian’s paintings, which only used primary colors, Calder exclaimed, “I would like to do that, but I would like it to move.”

Trained as an engineer, Calder became fascinated by the challenge of liberating sculpture from its historical limitations. His goal was to take the static, hollow, pedestalled medium and reinvent it. “Just as one can compose colors or forms,” Calder said, “so one can compose motion.”

Calder started working with wire in 1930, and the gallery’s first pieces explore his development of mobiles, ethereal works that create lines in space and, thanks to the superb lighting design, moving shadows. Many of the works, such as a trilogy of mobiles mounted in front of colored panels, are owned by the Calder Foundation N.Y. and are rarely exhibited.

“Little Face” is a choreographer’s delight, untethered parts creating a cohesive whole. Calder’s engineering genius is evident in his knowledge of the precise weight and density of each black piece that would counter the elements above and below.

From the magical, slow wake of the mobiles, one next explores his stabiles. Moving more slowly, subtly and quietly than the mobiles, their effect is one of benevolent creatures that happily invite the viewer to connect emotionally.

The exciting “Un effet du japonais” is like an anthropomorphic animal dance, its three legs stationary, its two arms poised, ready for the frenzy a puff of air would create. “Southern Cross,” displayed nearby, is a blend of mass and weightlessness, of movement and stillness. The effect is spell-binding, and prompted Albert Einstein to remark, “I wish I’d thought of that.”

Before his death, Calder also revolutionized monumental sculpture constructed for large outdoor spaces. La Grande Vitesse, a landmark in Grand Rapids, Michigan, marked the first time the public embraced abstract sculpture.

Pictured at top: 2014 Calder Foundation, New York/Art Resource Un effet du japonais (1941)

California Dreamin’ at Peabody Essex Museum

If ever there were a day to be California Dreamin’, it was a recent day when the sky was gray, the leaves were brown, and there was no doubt that it was warmer in L.A. Luckily, there was shelter from the gloom at the Peabody Essex Museum’s sleek and sunny new exhibit, “California Design 1930-1965: Living In A Modern Way.” 


Five years in the making, the exhibit asks the question, “What is the California way of life?” It answers it with 250 mid-century design objects broken into four themes: shaping, making, living and selling. These objects cover a lot of territory and commemorate the innovation, experimentation and freedom that characterized the golden era of the Golden State. The galleries are chockfull of items, from furnishings and architectural renderings of homes, to jewelry and toys. There is a shiny aluminum 1930’s Air Stream Clipper, and Esther Williams’s glittering gold lame swimsuit.

PEM-suit

Woman’s bathing suit, late 1950s. Gift of Esther Ginsberg and Linda Davis in honor of Jennifer Blake. Margit Fellegi Estate; Reproduced with permission of The Warnaco Group Inc. For Authentic Fitness Corp., Cole of California. MuseumAssociates/LACMA

Wandering the fashion and home decor sections, one feels like an intruder on the “Mad Men” set. In somewhat academic fashion, the exhibit explores the various historical influences that shaped and marketed the distinctive “California aesthetic.” Unprecedented population and economic explosions during the 1920’s and 1930’s insulated California from the suffering much of the rest of the country experienced after the Great Depression. Oil, agriculture and movie industries took seed and thrived. The vintage aerial views contrasting the 1922 and 1930 intersections of Wilshire and Fairfax Boulevards are visual proof.

After World War II, 850,000 GIs received California subsidized housing, looking for an indoor/outdoor lifestyle of warmth, surf and fun. Designers, including many avant-garde European immigrants who had fled Nazi persecution, heard of California’s reputation for encouraging professional originality and daring, and flocked there.

PEM-desk

Dan Johnson and Hayden Hall, Desk, 1947. LACMA, purchased with funds provided by The Buddy Taub Foundation, Dennis A. Roach and Jill Roach, Directors. 2011 Museum Associates/LACMA

Developments of new materials during the war (such as molded plywood, fiberglass and steel) and new commercial technologies after the war together created, for the first time, the ability to mass-produce goods. Moreover, the confluence of three conditions generated the perfect consumerist storm: enormous population growth, economic boom and postwar optimism. Add permanently sunny skies and spontaneous cultural combustion seemed inevitable.

The show’s open floor plan mirrors the California architects’ concepts of collapsed boundaries between rooms and fluidity of space. Strolling the show is like a scavenger hunt down memory lane. Charles and Ray Eames’ famous “Eames chair,” Barbie and Ken dolls, and the Polaroid Swinger camera are near a kidney-shaped pool and icons of the glamour of Hollywood (including Cedric Gibbons’ 1927 Oscar statue). Floor lamps with attitude, flatware with personality, and fashion with flair round out the offerings.

The overriding theme of the exhibit, however, is that the “California Dream” was meant to fulfill everyman’s dream of the modern, middle-class utopia.

“The goal was to provide well-designed, accessible and affordable modern homes and furnishings to millions of Californians, and those around the country who craved them,” said Austen Barron Bailly, PEM’s American Art curator. “The designers wanted to make everyday life comfortable and beautiful. Their motto was, ‘The best for the most for the least,’” she added.

The show’s 1930-1965 time bracket is deliberate. It starts at modern California’s birth, amidst 1930’s economic and cultural optimism, and winds down with 1965’s dawn of the counter-culture, political protest and individualism. In between, however, is a magical wonderland of color, charm and joie de vivre. Revel in its sheer joy and envy its giddy innocence of what the future holds.

Pictured at top: Raymond Loewy, Studebaker Avanti, 1964. Private Collection of Richard Vaux. Walter Silver/PEM