Photo Exhibit

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Medina

For a long time now, photography has given me an alternate creative medium, alongside my work as a writer. This past summer, my partner Tim and I traveled through Spain and Morocco collaborating on a new photography project.  Some of the resulting images are now on view at Silver Circle Art Center in Putnam, CT.

If you’ll be in New England, you can see our work in the Art Alley outside of Silver Circle through June 30th. Those of you further afield can also view and purchase prints from our show.  I’ve included a selection of images from the exhibit below. To order prints or see additional images, contact Silver Circle here — or just send me a note.

p.s. You can learn more about the first photography project Tim and I collaborated on here.

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Pajaros in Blue

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Siesta, Chefchaouen

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Fes, Morocco

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Andalucian Hills

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View of Sevilla

Kissing at the New York Public Library

Tim and I went to the New York Public Library a couple weeks ago and saw the exhibit about its legendary Picture Collection.  It’s been the source of inspiration for myriad artists and writers over the past century — everyone from Andy Warhol to Diego Rivera sourced images through the library’s collection.

We pulled out a portfolio labeled “Kissing” — here, in honor of Valentine’s Day, are five of my favorites.


NYPL Kissing 5

New York Reading

I spent a month living in New York this year, house-sitting for a friend in Brooklyn.  There’s something exceptionally nice about borrowing a friend and fellow-writer’s entire book collection.  I read my way through a lot of Meghan’s books during my ad-hoc New York residency: in addition to having Brooklyn’s handsomest and most hilarious kitten, Meghan has a fantastic book selection.

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So, for my second installment on reading in 2015, here is the best of what I read in New York this year:

Leaving the Atocha Station

Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station is rich with insight, an ambling and sharp examination of language and culture and the construction of self.  The novel follows Adam, an American poet living in Madrid on a writing fellowship, as he navigates the dislocations of living in another language.  This concise novel roams through Adam’s experience abroad, following him to parties and museums and Retiro Park hashish dealers, and through two romantic relationships.  It is obliquely comedic and at once densely intellectual and compelling.  For me, Leaving the Atocha Station reaches its height in its exploration of language.  Adam often self-consciously exploits the gaps in his Spanish fluency to create a particular projection of self.  Wandering with his Spanish girlfriend through a museum, for example, he trails off at the end of sentences as though his ideas exceed his Spanish vocabulary — so as to suggest that he has depth and insight that only his linguistic limits veil.  For Adam, comprehension and incomprehension become tools that allow him to mediate himself and craft a self-translation.

The novel sounds dense and esoteric, but it is vivid and comedic and brief.  A surprisingly engaging read that had me pausing to marvel over sentences of startling and recognizable insight.

 

Tiny Beautiful Things

I started reading Cheryl Strayed’s essays when I was in graduate school, and at various times read her Dear Sugar column.  But it was newly impactful to read the columns collected into a book.  Strayed is candid in a way that defies the advice column genre and insightful in a way that transcends the ways we normally talk about life with its myriad hardships and windows for growth.  She writes openly about her own family, her life as a writer, her second marriage, her divorce.  Tiny Beautiful Things becomes a second memoir, except in a radical new form.  A memoir that is relational and interactive and directed outward.  Strayed uses her columns to provoke and console and stand with her letter-writers in the precarious, disquieting spaces of life.  Strayed offers a distinct perspective, delivered in a frank and uniquely intimate way.

 

Everything I Never Told You

Celeste Ng’s novel Everything I Never Told You tells the story of a family in the 1970s after the drowning death of its teenage daughter.  But Lydia Lee’s inexplicable death is inextricably linked to the family’s larger story: its history, its myriad secrets and private disappointments.  Weaving through time, Ng explores the experiences of Lydia’s parents, Marilyn Lee, who had aspired to be a doctor before conceiving her children, and James Lee, a professor of Chinese-American heritage.  The Lees live in the intersections of personal experience, racial prejudice, and gender expectations — and each of these plays out to devastating consequence in the life of their daughter.

Reading Ng’s novel is pure pleasure.  Engaging and suspenseful, I read it in the course of one day during my New York residency, carrying it around with me through the Botanical Garden and finishing it in Prospect Park just as the sun set.

But it’s one of those books that sticks in your bones, manifesting slowly in the months afterward.  And in part that is because I realize how alive anti-Chinese-American prejudice can be — how actively it is at play in our contemporary institutions and culture.  And partly this novel stays with you because of Ng’s capacious emotional depth and generosity.  Her characters, in all their tragic flaws and shortcomings, cannot escape grief, but they are never beyond grace and redemption.

 

Never Let Me Go

I don’t want to say too much about Kazuo Ishiguro’s speculative novel Never Let Me Go because part of the delight and reward of reading it is discovering as you read what you’re reading about.  But I will say this: Ishiguro draws you into an enveloping world through the eyes of his narrator, who goes back over her childhood memories of being away at school — memories that feel at once strange and lullingly familiar.  Ishiguro’s narrator is searching and observant, noting with great insight the dynamics at play among friends as they grow older, and noting with remembered puzzlement the dislocations that comprise her life’s central mystery and meaning.  Ishiguro is master of the details — a cassette tape found in a seaside secondhand shop, for instance — that shade a life, and ultimately of the subtleties that make us human.

 

 

* The first installment of the best books I read this year is here.  And see more of my New York residency here, including New York writing, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and the new Whitney.

Your Daily Tile, Reprised

Have you guys seen Sebastian Erras’s photo project yet?  I’ve been following along on Instagram for a while now as he photographs beautiful Parisian tiled floors.  After my obsession with tiles in Spain and Morocco this summer, I’ve been totally captivated by Erras’s work.  Long Story Short released a short-short documentary on Erras and his photo project.  Check it out!

 

Reading this Year, 2015

I read a lot in spurts in 2015, and in the course of those spurts, read some pretty fantastic novels, short story collections, and nonfiction books.  From January through mid-April, I read nothing except research for my book, mixed in with a healthy smattering of essays, articles and museum plaques.  Excluding all the research material, here’s the best of what I read this year, in the first of several weekly installments:

Euphoria

I loved Lily King’s Euphoria, with its rich, taught recasting of Margaret Mead’s life and anthropological work in 1930s New Guinea.  The novel is beautifully constructed — short and tight and suspenseful, though I had some concerns about its ending.  Review here.

Lowland

I usually like Jhumpa Lahiri’s short stories better than her novels; she’s a master of the shorter form.  And while I’d certainly first recommend the inimitable masterwork that was Interpreter of Maladies and the impressive stories in Unaccustomed Earth (particularly the heartshattering trilogy of stories at the collection’s end), The Lowland has some nice moments.  Lahiri is a masterful chronicler of the dislocations of immigrant life, finely attuned to the nuances of culture and place.  This novel is more cohesive than her first, though the early chapters can feel more expository and less vivid than what follows.

Signature of All Things

I think Elizabeth Gilbert gets criticized unfairly for her nonfiction books; the tenor and tone of this criticism often seems unnecessarily harsh, and gendered in a way I cannot abide.  In The Signature of All Things she returns to her original form: long before Eat, Pray, Love, Gilbert was an accomplished and respected novelist.  Here she returns to the novel form with an epic story of an imagined botanist during the age of Darwin, shadowing the contours of her fictive character’s life with the restrictions and confinements particular to a woman of her time, and also with the sweeping scope of possibility created by her life in science.  There is a vast, hidden history of women’s accomplishments, and Alda’s story steps into this historical void.  If the novel occasionally feels uneven and a bit too long, it’s an ambitious speculative historical portrait, and a fascinating glimpse into the vast, unanswerable, “What if?”

 

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

I read this book at just the right moment.  It’s (fairly) criticized, as successful books often are, but it happened to come into my life via a friend’s coffee table, and I read it in the span of one afternoon while I waited to head out to a restaurant to meet friends for dinner.  It so-happened that post-research-trip, post-residency, as I settled into a 450-square-foot cottage, I needed to do some serious tidying in order to claim some space, and Kondo’s book walked into my life just when I needed it.  I followed it almost exactly, refolding my shirts and socks and sending boxes down to the charity shop nearby.  Here is what I will say about Marie Kondo’s method: it can be incredibly clarifying.  Her guiding principle in cleaning out is to keep what sparks joy, and that what sparks joy will be different for everyone.  Her method provides a helpful and reliable schema for sorting and discarding, gives permission to toss things that we otherwise keep out of sentiment or guilt, and maintains a brisk momentum that simultaneously tidies your space and provides you with a clearer sense of perspective on what your priorities and values look like.  I found it at a fortuitous moment and followed it because I needed it.  And because I needed it, it worked.

 

More books to follow next week.

Hassan Hajjaj

This summer, as I was getting ready for my trip to Morocco, I came across this article by Mickalene Thomas in the New York Times Style Magazine.  It’s a travelogue of her trip to Italy, where she participated in the “Black Portraiture{s} II” conference hosted by NYU.  But in addition to participating in the conference, she shared her unique glimpses into art and life in Italy, allowing us to see it too through her artist’s eyes, from graffiti to leather craftsmen to adverts.  She also shared some of the contemporary art she visited during her travels.

And the image she shared of one of Hassan Hajjaj’s photographs stopped me in my tracks.

I’d been trying to learn more about Moroccan art in advance of my trip: both the traditional artisan trajectories of textile artists and wood carvers and leather workers — and contemporary Moroccan art.  Hassan Hajjaj’s work is gorgeous: rich, sumptuous colors; portraiture that plays with Moroccan motifs and textiles and is unabashedly modern.

Helen PJI by Hassan Hajjaj (source)

Helen PJI by Hassan Hajjaj (source)

Rider by Hassan Hajjaj (source)

Rider by Hassan Hajjaj (source)

I didn’t get a chance to see any of Hajjaj’s work during my travels in Morocco, but have kept an eye on his work since I first came across him.

So imagine my surprise when I met a friend at the Worcester Art Museum this weekend and found they had a full-on Hassan Hajjaj installation (on exhibit through March 6).  Hajjaj’s work is even more luminous and texturally active in person: the photographs of such a high resolution that the textiles have a palpable tactile quality, the borders of the photographs woven.

The exhibit at WAM is part portrait photography, part video installation, part environmental immersion.  And seeing Hajjaj’s work in this context gave it new dimension.  The exhibit’s walls are painted with patterns borrowed Moroccan textile and decorative motifs.  And the installation includes furniture Hajjaj designed fusing sources such as the traditional leather Moroccan ottoman and the utilitarian material culture of contemporary life: milk crates, plastic paint buckets.

Mandisa Dumezweni by Hassan Hajjaj

Mandisa Dumezweni by Hassan Hajjaj (source: Worcester Art Museum)

Titled “My Rock Stars,” the exhibit features portraits of contemporary musicians whose work has inspired Hajjaj and a dynamic film installation of their performance work.  Having just returned from a stay in Essouira, the Gnawan music felt particularly powerful, though the real impact of the film installation came from the collaging of sounds as distinct, individually compelling, and collectively texturally rich as these.

The exhibit is a must-see if you find yourself in New England.  And Hajjaj an artist to watch no matter where you live.

I am crushed that I missed his visit to WAM earlier this year.  So here’s this for an intention: Let my work matter enough that someday Hassan Hajjaj will photograph me.

 

Mickalene Thomas

I’ve been fascinated by Mickalene Thomas since I saw her piece at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond this spring.  I’ve seen a few of her pieces in person since then, and have found her interiors particularly interesting.  Thomas’s work in her portraits and her interiorscapes is often lush and richly materialed.

Sleep: Deux Femmes Noires

Mickalene Thomas’s Sleep: Deux Femmes Noires at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston

I have found myself increasingly compelled by the creative capacity of material culture in my own  life: drawn to textile and ceramic and the richness of interior space.  A year or two ago on one of my many visits to the Baltimore Museum of Art’s inimitable Cone Collection, it occurred to me how important surrounding himself with material culture — and particularly textiles — had been in Matisse’s work, and how resonant that feels in my own creative life.

Thomas’s work has always struck me as falling into this same lineage.  Full of the energy of material, both in her subject and her technique.

So I was delighted to see this video of Thomas’s home this week.  (And it includes a Matisse!)

For more on Mickalene Thomas and her work, I was fascinated by her reflections on interior space and her own artistic evolution in this interview.