Wednesday, April 18, 2018

What's an Institute for Contemporary Art supposed to look like? And, why?

Click on any of my ICA photos to enlarge them.

Since its 2014 ground-breaking, Virginia Commonwealth University's Institute for Contemporary Art, at the southwest corner of Belvidere and Broad Streets, has been a work-in-progress to be observed by one and all. The ICA will open to the public with an all-day party on Apr. 21, 2018.

The ICA's first show, Declaration, features work from 34 artists. It will be up through Sept. 9, 2018. In the coming months this varied exhibition will hardly be confused with traditional art shows we might have seen at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, such as those offering depictions of bowls of fruit or portraits of dandified monarchs.

Yesterday I took an hour to walk through the airy new gallery space and glance at the art. What follows won't be a review of the art I saw. Nor will it be a criticism of the Fan District's striking new building. Still, I will take this opportunity to mention one particular notion that occurred to me while I was there.

Before I get to that point, I have to say the ICA is sitting on familiar turf. Having lived in the Fan District for most of my life it will be fascinating to watch the impact the ICA is bound to have on the old neighborhood. In the last 25 years, like it or not, with all of its new and refurbished buildings, especially on Broad St., VCU's architectural footprint on the heart of Virginia's capital city has become noteworthy.

However, this new building, designed by Steven Holl, promises to overshadow all of that. Like many Richmonders, when I saw the first artist's drawings of how the ICA would look, yes, I wondered about it. Why? Yet, since then I've deliberately tried not to form an opinion of its appearance.

Like, why rush to judgment? Instead, I decided to trust Joe Seipel and wait to see what I think when it's done. (Full disclosure: Joe is an old friend.) Reading and hearing lots of opinions concerning the ICA's somewhat eccentric look has only made me more determined to wait. So watching its progress, as I rode by on my bike, hasn't been a matter of trying to confirm a love or hate for how it has looked at various stages of its construction.

So now, having looked it over, inside and out – only briefly – I am happy to say I like the unusual-looking building and I love what I now envision it will do for VCU and my home town. What answers, call-and-response-wise, will it inspire?

Now I want to pass on something about the occasional angles and curves of the rooms inside the building that occurred to me, just yesterday, right before I left the ICA: The designer, Holl, has created a context for the displays that makes the art, itself, stand out more. 

Dig it: our expectation, upon entering a conventional art gallery, has been that we will see everything framed by straight lines. Rectangles everywhere: the paintings in frames, objects in glass boxes, the galleries themselves with their vertical and horizontal lines. Right angles. The ceilings. The floors. The walls. 

This isn't to say that all that has been wrong. But what Holl has done escapes some of those expectations. So, to me, the random curves and angles of the interior of the ICA, of the rooms large and small, make the pieces of art seem less confined, perhaps liberated. More eye-popping!

Thus, in a way I hadn't anticipated, this building's form is following function. While I won't suggest that Holl intended this factor from the get-go, or that he didn't, I do think it will gradually become more evident to other observers that it's true. 

Bottom line: Go to the party on Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and see what you think.


-- 30 --

Friday, April 13, 2018

1993: SLANT Forum

After the article below, written by Charles Slack (Richmond Times-Dispatch, Jan., 31, 1993), my concept for conducting discussions in a coffee shop was briefly adapted to radio. It lasted only a couple of months, because the advertising time was too hard to sell; especially for a guy who was burning out as an advertising salesman.

The way it worked was that I bought the hour from WTVR and then brokered the 30- and 60-second time slots I sold for advertising. But the merchants I tied to sell that commercial time to mostly wouldn't believe a topical talk-show could be successful without a clearly right-wing, or left-wing, host dominating it.

My thinking was that it was more interesting if the host was more a provocateur than a partisan. But the potential clients would tell me that while they liked the show, they still thought most listeners would prefer a different kind of show. Some of them didn't see the need for the live audience in a restaurant; they told me the public would rather to hear a know-it-all insulting callers on the telephone.

In retrospect, they were probably right, but that wasn't what I wanted to do.

While it lasted, doing the SLANT Forum show live -- with an opinionated audience on hand -- was great fun. Katey, my daughter, was in on it as a regular commentator. The programs were staged at Coffee & Co. in Carytown and World Cup on Robinson St. I still have tapes of them.

This is the MTV generation, right? Generation X. Raised on "The Brady Bunch." Life reduced to sound bite. Conversation is as old-fashioned as doctors' house calls and the milkman delivering a pint of cream to your door. Everybody knows that nobody talks anymore.

Then what are the 30 or so patrons of The Bidder's Suite on West Grace Street, many in their early 20s, doing here on a Monday night with the music turned down?

As it turns out, they've paid a 99-cent cover charge for the sole purpose of doing what everyone says people just don't do anymore -- having a conversation. Welcome to the Slant Forum, billed as an "Information Party."

At the microphone is F.T. "Terry" Rea, publisher of Slant, one of the city's longest-running alternative publications. Some of the topics are straight out of the headlines -- date rape, gun control, gays in the military. Others take a lighter look at popular culture.

Rea says the idea came to him late at night. He jotted down a few notes. "When the idea hit me, I got very excited. The next day I looked at my notes. I was still excited."

That being his acid test for ideas conceived in the dead of night. He contacted his friends at The Bidder's Suite, a coffee house/restaurant/ bar on West Grace Street. The restaurant was closed on Monday nights. How about opening it up for weekly discussion nights? Rea would charge the 99-cent cover, the restaurant would serve its usual menu of sandwiches, appetizers, coffee and drinks.

"I'm from the `60s generation," says Linda Beales, who owns the restaurant with her son, Jame-Paul Owens. Ms. Beales says she'd like the place to capture the atmosphere of coffeehouses that flourished around the country in the `60s.

The Bidder's Suite already features poetry readings and acoustic guitars. So why not discussions? Rea and The Bidder's Suite vow to hold the discussion nights each Monday as long as interest is sufficient.

A little after 8 p.m., Rea gets the evening under way with a trivia contest and the first of three pre-set discussion topics. If you've followed Slant magazine's iconoclastic take on Richmond life but never met Rea, you expect the 45-year-old to look sort of funky, with long hair, perhaps, a full beard, and a T-shirt with some anti-establishment slogan.

Instead, Rea appears with short hair, button-down shirt and a striped sweater. He looks more like a schoolteacher than a rebel. And that's exactly his function in these discussions. He's like a teacher -- one of those cool ones who lets the kids express themselves without fear of reprisal.

Except it's better than a classroom here, according to patron Paul Hudert, a student at VCU. "You get to voice your opinion. It's more personal."

Hudert's friend, Lisa Clayton, says she prefers the give and take of the discussion over simply absorbing facts from the media. "The media give you one opinion. They tell me the same thing over and over." The first subject Rea has selected for the evening is "anti-classics," meaning those aspects of popular culture that seem prevalent today but are destined for history's dustbin with the likes of the Hula Hoop and Pet Rocks.

The discussion starts promisingly, but soon degenerates into a personal listing by patrons of likes and dislikes. Smoking is on the way out, one patron declares. Anti-smokers are on the way out, says another. When the subject runs out of steam, Rea declares a short recess, then returns with a discussion about what Bill Clinton should do with Saddam Hussein.

What follows is a literate, informed debate with opinion ranging from lay off the Iraqis to finish the job that George Bush started. Gregory Maitland, who has served in the Army and is now a cook at The Bidder's Suite, was working the night the first forum was held in December. He was so intrigued by the discussion that he requested Monday nights off and has returned every week to participate.

Maitland says he comes "not just to state my opinions, but to hear others." He believes, "We're in a new age, from `This is what I think and that's all that matters' to `What's your opinion?'"

Many of the participants are regulars, but new faces have been appearing each week, Rea says.

VCU students Amy McGahan and Hugh Apple dropped in after seeing a Slant ad posted in another restaurant.

Ms. McGahan says, "The thought of people coming together and talking seemed really cool. It's encouraging. You get so tired of watching TV and going to the movies."

Though the crowd leaned toward students in their early 20s, the mix is not limited by age. Gayle Carson, who returned to college after leaving 20 years ago, says, "I'm one of those people who like to voice an opinion.

"Even though we've had some intense discussions, it's never gotten to the point that it's beyond polite conversation."

Monday, April 02, 2018

A Lucky Break

The 1981-82 Biograph Naturals, CBA champions.

During the month of March, each year, the NCAA men’s basketball tournament is a blessing. The surprises and suspenseful moments of the games help get basketball junkies, like me, through those last tedious days of winter. Every March, as my favorite teams are eliminated and my brackets crumble, I cling to the notion that by the time of the two Final Four games, at least the warm weather will have arrived..

Of course, to be a junkie in full bloom one must still play the game. Since I quit playing basketball in 1994, I suppose I’ve been a junkie in recovery. Yes, I’ll always miss the way a perfectly-released jump shot felt as it left my fingertips. Nothing in my life has replaced the satisfaction that came from stealing the ball from an opponent, just as he stumbles over his hubris. It's especially nice when you get to shoot an uncontested layup, as a result -- providing, of course, you don't miss the snowbird.

The years I've spent covering college basketball, as a writer, have helped to soothe my basketball jones. Since the improvisational aspect of basketball has always appealed to me, from a seat on press row it's fun to watch particular players who have a special knack for seizing the moment. If it's a player you've seen plenty of, sometimes, from the expression on his face, you can sense what he's about to do.

While basketball is in some ways a finesse game, injury-wise, if you play enough of it there are some brutal truths it will inevitably serve up. Although I’ve heard people claim that we can’t remember pain, I have not forgotten what it felt like to dislocate my right ankle on the afternoon of April 20, 1985; I was undercut finishing a one-on-five fast break layup.

While I'd love to say the ball went in the basket, I don't remember that part. What I do remember is flopping around on the hardwood floor, uncontrollably, like a fish out of water. Take it from me, dear reader, popping your foot off the end of your leg hurts way too much to forget -- think James Caan in “Misery” (1990).

But this story is about another injury. On March 4, 1982, my then-34-year-old nose was broken during the course of a basketball game. In that time, the Biograph Theatre, which I managed, had a men's team in a league called the Central Basketball Alliance. Other teams were sponsored by the Track, Soble’s, Hababa’s, the Jade Elephant, etc. Personnel-wise, the CBA was an off-shoot of the Fan District Softball League, with some of the same characters.

The morning after my nose was bashed in by an opponent’s upwardly thrust elbow, while I was coming down from a failed attempt at snatching a rebound, I went to Stuart Circle Hospital for treatment.

My nose wasn’t just broken, it had been split open at the bridge in three or four directions. The emergency room doc used Super Glue and a butterfly clamp to put it all back together. This was before such glue had been approved for use in this country, so he asked me not to tell anyone what he had done; I hope the statute of limitations has run out.

Then, after getting an X-ray the next day, I was waiting around in the hospital lobby to sign some papers and my grandmother -- Emily “Villa” Collins Owen -- was wheeled by. She was stretched out on a hospital bed. As I grew up in her home and was still very close to her, it had the same panic impact as seeing one’s parent in such an abrupt context.

We spoke briefly. She said she was feeling a little weak from a cold and had decided to spend the night in the hospital. She lived just a few blocks away. Pretending to ignore my gripping sense of panic, I calmly assured Nana (pronounced Ny-nuh) I’d be back during visiting hours, to see how she was doing.

That evening I took my then-12-year-old daughter, Katey, with me to see Nana. The doctor came in her room and told us she’d be fine with a good night’s rest. Katey and I spent a half-hour making our 83-year-old Nana laugh as best she could ... feeling a little weak.

Six decades before this she had trained to be a nurse at that same hospital, which has now been converted into condos. Nana died later that night; it was in the wee hours of the morning that followed.

Had luck not interposed a fate-changing elbow to my beak, Katey and I may not have had that last precious visit with Nana. Knowing my grandmother, I'm not at all sure she would have let anybody know she was in the hospital. At least, not right away.

Which means I have to say the palooka who elbowed me in that basketball game did me a favor. Perhaps in more ways than one.

You see, in order to keep playing in the Biograph’s games in that season, I needed to protect my nose while it healed. So, I got one of those protective aluminum nose-guards I’d seen players wear. It was a primitive version of the clear plastic masks in use today.

As a kid, I saw future-NBA great Jerry West wearing such a broken-nose-protector when he was playing his college ball at West Virginia. It impressed the 12-year-old version of me to no end; I marveled at how tough and focused West was.

So, wearing what was to me a Jerry West mask, I played the rest of the CBA season -- maybe five more games. Now I believe that period was about the best basketball I ever played. Not wanting another whack to the nose made me a little more careful, maybe more purposeful. Which, apparently, was just what my game had been needing. 

Our team didn’t lose another game that year; the Biograph Naturals won the league’s championship. In looking back on those weeks after my grandmother's death, I can easily see that in testing my nerve, in a fashion after the way West had tested his, in the spring of 1982 I was living out a boyhood dream. Some of the game's lucky breaks can only be detected in the rear-view mirror.

-- 30 --