All posts by ashkemper

O’Sullivan captures the Wild West

By Ashley Kemper
ArtsPost staff writer

Traditional tales of outlaw escapades and cowboy adventures are long forgotten in the hauntingly desolate yet picturesque collection of photographs by Timothy O’ Sullivan currently on exhibit in the Smithsonian American Art Museum. While traveling across of the country from 1867 to 1874 with Clarence King and Lt. George M. Wheeler, O’Sullivan honed his photographer’s eye in the midst of the western terrain. Idaho falls, Colorado peaks, Nevada lakes and Utah canyons all provided fodder for the budding documentary biologist.

The exhibit’s more than 100 photographs transport viewers to an era when both photographs and the hopes of pioneering explorers were black and white. Uninhabited landscapes tell a story of the great wilderness just beginning to be explored by pioneers seeking the promise of open skies. A sense of anticipation and promise emanates from the warmly toned images. Though the focus of the exhibit lies heavily on topography and only shows the rare human, the frames encompass a palpable spirit seeping out from the earth. As viewers walk through the exhibit, they feel as if they are joining O’Sullivan and his cohorts on their Great American Adventure. A sense of newness appears even to modern viewers who believe they have seen everything west of the Mississippi.

In an interview with the Washington Post, exhibit curator Toby Jurovics said that O’Sullivan unlocked the camera’s metaphoric powers.He wasn’t daunted by the fact that nothing’s there,” Jurovics said. Instead of creating welcoming travel photos, O’Sullivan documented only that which appeared in front of him, in all its harsh, intimidating, awe-inspiring glory.

O’Sullivan refuses to bend to the magnanimity of America’s greatest natural wonders, but instead frames them with the dreams of a generation set on conquering the West, as in his “Buttes Near Green River City, 1872.”  The landscape’s off-kilter horizon line does not detract from the butte’s splendor, but it does temper the impact, hiding a natural beauty behind a field of brush and tumbleweeds. The dynamic lines of the butte contrast the blemished ground below it and rise elegantly into the heavy sky.

In an image of Idaho’s Shoshone Falls, however, a long exposure captures the urgent rush of a river flowing over jutted rocks, the energy and confidence of an expanding nation floating in tow. Though the cusp of the falls fill most of the image, O’Sullivan allows a rising mist to encompass the otherwise beautifully defined tide. Rather than framing the rushing waters from a head-on position to capture the full width of the cliff, O’Sullivan merely perches on the water’s edge, seemingly inches from being swept up in the current to expose the maximum energy and power of the water. The way the photographer shows a willingness to immerse himself in the subject yet presents a biological and human-less product displays his affinity for the beauty of Earth’s processes.

Employing the latest photographic technique of the time, O’Sullivan produced his sweeping vistas as albumen silver prints. The egg white solution utilized in the process adds a slight but distinct sheen to the images that seems to enhance to their mysterious quality. ­­­­Unlike other photographers of his time, O’Sullivan set out not to make this new territory seem familiar for Colonials, but instead to caution of the untouched hazards that lay ahead. His scientific approach caught a side of the West rarely seen, one that still causes viewers today to pause and admire the shocking nature that lies just within our reach.

A new generation of family ties

by Ashley Kemper
ArtsPost staff writer

'Parenthood' photo provided by NBC.

There’s something to be said for sticking with your gut when you’ve got a winning formula on your hands. There’s something completely different to be said for stabbing your competition in the gut, stealing his winning formula and running for the hills.

If this spring’s new family drama “Parenthood” (NBC Tuesdays at 10/9c) feels altogether familiar in more than one way, that’s because, well, it is. Inspired directly by Ron Howard’s 1989 movie, “Parenthood” has also drawn heavy comparisons to ABC’s Sunday primetime standby “Brothers and Sisters,” now in it’s fourth season. While the Walker family of California notoriety looks to a sassy Sally Field for its dose of unwanted motherly influence, the new “Parent” on the block is a bull-headed but well-meaning patriarch played by the Coach himself, Craig T. Nelson.

The endearing combination of family togetherness and sibling rivalry that has earned “Brothers” seven Emmy nominations, including one “Best Actress” win for Field, seems to be missing from the new drama, which focuses more on the second generation children than their thirty-something parents. Lauren Graham makes a sudden return to the small screen as Sarah after Maura Tierney, who was originally cast in the slot, pulled herself out of the show to battle breast cancer. Tierney’s unexpected diagnosis caused network execs to pull the show from their fall lineup and re-shoot several episodes with Graham (who enjoyed much better writers in her “Gilmore Girls” days) stepping in place.

Now nine episodes into their opening run, “Parenthood” has already dragged the viewers along through the discovery of a new son, grown daughter Sarah (Graham) moving back in with her parents and fistfuls of teenage angst as three grandchildren enter the high school ring. Often the only saving grace in this show appears in the form of Max (Max Burkholder), one of the youngest members of the Braverman clan who is diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome in the show’s pilot. Despite the embarrassment of this older sister Haddie (Sarah Ramos) and the chagrin of his parents Adam (Peter Krause) and Kristina (Monica Potter), Max wants nothing more than to wear his pirate costume to school every day and play baseball with his cousin Drew (Miles Heizer) at night. Max’s socially inept nature makes him so refreshingly unaware of his own eccentricities that the rest of his family comes off as flat and guarded.

Another point of frustration in this parenting nightmare is the fact that it’s impossible to keep the relationships straight. While the siblings on  “Brothers and Sisters” have an established rapport with one another that distinguishes them from their spouses, viewers of “Parenthood” need a certified road map to recall whether in fact it’s Adam or Kristina who is related to the clan as well as which interchangeable child belongs to which branch of the family tree.

For all its positive attributes, however, “Brothers and Sisters” still has not reclaimed the holding power it enjoyed three seasons ago. Calista Flockhart, Rachel Griffiths, Matthew Rhys and Dave Annable still bring a believable and enjoyable presence to the show each week as four of the Walker siblings. Though they fight like cats and dogs for forty-five minutes at a time, the family invariably ends up sitting around their mother’s dining room table at the end of the night, sharing a glass of wine from the family vineyard to toast averting another crisis. The first season or two of this robust drama provided the plot twists of a telenovela but delivered them in a polished, witty and (generally) logical way. The latest episodes, however, have shown us a magical cure for cancer, a green card that arrives just in the nick of time and job offer for Senator McCallister (Rob Lowe) just vague enough for writers to give Lowe an easy exit when plans for him to join the cast of “Parks and Recreation” become final.

If all of this heavy drama is weighing viewers down, have no fear: at least there’s one “Modern Family” (ABC, Wednesdays 9/8c) in town. Or, as the show’s tagline says, “one big (straight, gay, multi-cultural, traditional) happy family.” Perhaps hoping to spice up its midweek lineup, ABC has essentially taken “Brothers and Sisters” and broken it down to a snappier, spicier, showier version. Instead of an aloof, gay, lawyer for a brother, we have Cam (Eric Stonestreet), who makes Liberace’s costume designer look reserved. Instead of an upstanding senator for a brother-in-law, we have Phil (Ty Burrell), who has the emotional maturity of a twelve-year-old and recently spent the entire half-hour slot playing with his trendy new iPad.

Standing at the head of this comedy of errors is retiree Jay (Ed O’Neill) who recently married trophy wife Gloria (Sofía Vergara) and took on her chipmunk-cheeked, preteen son as his second shot at being a father.

The thing that makes “Modern Family” a show worth returning to next week is not the star power of O’Neill as was originally anticipated, but the continually surprising and genuinely funny performances of supporting cast members. In a move that’s got even “Glee” starlets thinking twice about pre-written acceptance speeches, the entire cast of “Modern Family” (including O’Neill) has just announced their plans to enter the Emmy race in supporting categories.

The truly ensemble spirit of the show shines through in a way that makes even the most degenerate cousin consider attending his family reunion after all.

Backstage at “The Liar”

By Ashley Kemper
ArtsPost staff writer

With an offbeat comedy, a seasoned cast and a poodle-shaped topiary, it’s hard to imagine the Shakespeare Theater Company’s latest endeavor would not be a hit with audiences. Director Michael Kahn, however, is working line-by-line through the show to ensure that the show, a world premiere of David Ives’ adaptation from Pierre Corneille’s “The Liar”, maximizes each laugh in the play. In a recent dress and tech rehearsal, Kahn made it plainly clear that his production will fall nothing short of comedic excellence, working with actors to perfect delivery and position. Though the staging moved along at a glacial pace, colorful actors entertained themselves, and their small audience during segues between takes. If the show itself employs a witty comedy delivered in rhyming couplets, the force driving the chuckles home is a cast of endearing jesters. After take upon take of the same few lines for stretches of more than twenty minutes, the actors frequently found their tongues tied and lines forgotten, resulting in outtakes as funny as the script itself.

What was most amazing, however, was the critical eye of Kahn and his application of it. While the audience watched actors delivering lines of dialogue, Kahn would take not of the lighting levels in the background or whether or not a set piece was properly located. These things were not immediately apparent to the audience who spent their energy trying to follow the quick script, but a small edit or adjustment here and there actually made all the difference in creating a specific mood. It was also incredible just realizing that Kahn was able to process each tiny detail of the production at once and make judgments about the validity of the whole. His confidence in requesting changes assured the audience that he sought to provide the best show possible for viewers, and his reliance on actors for input showed the level of trust he has in his experienced cast.

Georgia on my mind

By Ashley Kemper
ArtsPost staff writer

As one of the most famous American artists of her time, Georgia O’Keeffe enjoys nearly fail-proof name recognition. Few people, however, know much of the artist beyond her brightly hued floral works. In a departure from her stereotypical flowers, the latest exhibit at the Phillips Collection, “Georgia O’Keeffe: Abstraction” instead focuses on O’Keeffe’s lesser-known abstract works.

Despite popular assumptions, O’Keeffe actually spent her early years as an artist working primarily on her abstract creations, only later beginning to paint the flora that she felt would more easily translate to modern audiences.

While the forms dictated in these works may not be familiar to many O’Keeffe fans, the warm tones and fluid lines within each frame distinguish the paintings as clearly and uniquely O’Keeffe. Other contemporary artists of the early 20th century largely allowed themselves to be labeled either abstract or representational; O’Keeffe, on the other hand, insisted it was not only possible to be both, but completely necessary.

“[O’Keeffe] didn’t like to separate the abstract from the objective,” said Phillips curator Elsa Smithgall in her notes on the exhibit. “Both are present in her work, and are not mutually exclusive. It’s about time to see O’Keeffe had an important voice in the history of American abstraction.”

After being shown in the Whitney Museum in New York, the collection traveled south to D.C., albeit with slightly fewer works than the original showing. The more than 100 paintings and drawings more than do justice to O’Keeffe’s abstract endeavors, though, and span more than five decades of her career.

The Phillip’s appreciation for modernist art makes the venue a perfect fit for O’Keeffe’s collection. Situated just a few feet away from some of the world’s most famous Renior, Degas and van Gogh paintings, “Abstraction” gains a richness and composure when viewed after the permanent exhibits, showing by contrast just how classical O’Keeffe actually was.

Connoisseurs of the artist’s popular work will enjoy the opportunity to see her progression as a painter through the half-century she was active, noticing the growth that interweaves itself between both her abstract and representational paintings. Aiming to represent the breadth of her work, the collection still includes a handful of flower paintings that provide contrast to the abstractions while also introducing viewers to similarities between the two.

Beginning with a selection of charcoal drawings, the exhibit progresses to colorful explorations of space and form. The charcoal images spawned from O’Keeffe’s early years during her initial forays into the genre of modernist reduction. In an attempt to focus heavily on the emotion behind the composition, O’Keeffe employed tightly cropped images, allowing the viewer to feel a closer association with the work. While some creations tentatively introduce hints of subtle color, most explode with turbulent reiterations of intense hues. The oversized canvases enrapture viewers in their boldness and sensuality, allowing visitors to closely examine each flowing tide of color.

“Georgia O’Keeffe: Abstraction” is on display through May 9 at the Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. NW.

Louisiana rockers bring Mardi Gras to 9:30 Club

By Ashley Kemper
ArtsPost staff writer

Image of Cowboy Mouth by Guy Aceto, Cowboy Mouth Official Site.

When New Orleans’s country-rock group Cowboy Mouth took to the stage in Northwest D.C.’s 9:30 Club on a recent Friday night, the only thing louder than the roar of the crowd was the first pulsing beat from Fred LeBlanc’s drum kit, with bassist Regina Zernay’s fire engine-red pigtails ranking a close second. While Cowboy Mouth hails from Low Country, the band checked their chaps and 10-gallon hats at the door in favor of rock ‘n’ roll T-shirts and, in LeBlanc’s case, bare feet.

Though the band’s name, inspired by a 1971 Patti Smith/Sam Shepard play, evokes a twang the likes of Garth Brooks or Johnny Cash, this quartet was channeling more Green Day than Rascal Flatts. With more than a dozen records under their collective belt, Cowboy Mouth has finally escaped from serving as opening act for the likes Hootie and the Blowfish, Barenaked Ladies, Sister Hazel and Better Then Ezra, and earned their own headlining tour.

In just the third stop on their two-month-long journey, the band was well-received by a diverse, yet expectant crowd. Following a misplaced performance by opening act Junior Brown, whose greatest entertainment value was their drummer’s 1970s chevron mustache a lá Tom Selleck, Cowboy Mouth turned the atmosphere around quickly with several upbeat dance tunes. The four-person ensemble, rounded out by lead vocal and guitarist John Thomas Griffith and rhythm guitarist Jonathan “JP” Pretus, opened its performance with a raucous version of their “Glad to Be Alive,” which, while falling flat on their 2006 album Voodoo Shoppe, exuded a vibrant energy on stage, setting the tone for the rest of the night.

In their two decades as a band, Cowboy Mouth has sold nearly half a million records in the U.S.; their bread and butter, however, comes from the concerts that have entertained more than 8 million people, and for good reason. Sitting in the center of a set decked with purple, green and gold Mardi Gras flags, drummer/songwriter/lead singer LeBlanc controlled the audience like a well-practiced puppeteer, tossing drumsticks and flailing his tongue with each beat, holding the pulse of the crowd in his hands.

Although the group hasn’t produced an album since their 2008 Fearless, Cowboy Mouth performed a sample from their repertoire in addition to a few covers. The set list included fan favorites, “Belly,” “Kelly Ripa,” and “Everybody Loves Jill,” during which the lyrics “She eats her red cake/ with my favorite red spoon” set off a storm of plastic red spoons raining from the hands of the audience onto the stage. In response, band members flung Mardi Gras beads back at their supporters as LeBlanc invited the crowd to stay at his home during the upcoming festivities. He also repeatedly cheered on the New Orleans Saints, who are set to make their first ever Super Bowl appearance this year.

Despite their solid performance at the 9:30 Club, Cowboy Mouth has had its fair share of roadblocks along their road to success. When Hurricane Katrina demolished the group’s hometown in 2006, Paul Sanchez, Cowboy Mouth’s rhythm guitarist of 16 years, walked away from the band after their manager suggested a temporary pay cut to cover post-Katrina expenses. Many fans feared the band’s demise after Sanchez’s departure, saying the guitarist and band co-founder provided a sense of warmth and soul behind the music.

Zernay, also a recent addition to the band, joined forces with LeBlanc in 2007. She stepped in to replace Sonia Tetlow, who had herself replaced Mary LaSang. In all, Cowboy Mouth has seen nearly a half-dozen bassists come and go during their time, though Zernay looked like she was having fun and may stick around for a while.

After leaving the nation’s capital, Cowboy Mouth heads to Newport, Ky., Cleveland, Detroit and Chicago before wrapping up back down South in Atlanta in late March.

Image of Cowboy Mouth by Guy Aceto, Cowboy Mouth Official Site.