Saturday, June 30, 2012

Binny Owl

When I first noticed this owl, I thought it might be related to the mural on the other side of the same building – the artist and his brother renamed the art gallery production company 40 Owls. They told me they didn’t know about the owl until I asked. So for now, the artist and the inspiration are unknown.
Binny’s food mart is a liquor store, convenience store, all-around, classic Jersey City bodega that has been on this triangle where 4th Street converges upon and crosses Newark since the Dutch massacred the Lena Lenape by the Hudson and began marching towards the hillside. Okay, maybe not quite that long ago, but I’m thinking when Reagan was president you could still get a 40, a lottery ticket and an optima here. Maybe with 10 or 5 years the encroaching gentrification will SoHo-ize this stalwart establishment and maybe this old gate will be replaced and this owl will be gone and a store and gate with far less authenticity will be catering to customers with far higher personal incomes.
Faded, drab red exterior, rust splotches on top of the gates, this building resists gentrification, for how long? The mural on the 4th street side, and now the new owl on the gate facing Newark, the building is a canvas for some artists, who may not be outlaws but seem to on the fringes of even the local artist circles. Is art a harbinger of the encroaching gentrification or will it protect this old urban building from developer commodification?
I don’t know, do you, or must we wait for time to tell us which side art is on?
 The picture looks like a charcoal sketch. I like the shades of the owl, blacks, grays, white, all against the gun metal gray of the gate; the similarities of all the colors blend with a muted shimmer.  The round eyes of the bird echo a native american art feel.

I went inside the store – Plexiglas, raised counter so the clerk can constantly survail, very urban decay 80s – inquired about the owl. I don’t the man the said, it just appeared.
The owners of the building allowed the mural. The owl may have a different inception. Maybe the guy I talked to at the counter just hadn’t been informed about this latest art project, or this is street art/graffiti, a quasi-illegal act of aesthetic defacement of private property.
I kind of doubt the latter is the case because of the size of the work, it had to require a significant amount of time, longer than pasting a stencil or scrawling a tag, for someone to get away with doing that sort of unpermitted activity, if that is the case, speaks to the ingenuity of the artist and the quality of local police surveillance, which is why I think it was sanctioned – maybe it’s been sanctioned after the fact. Maybe there has been so much art spreading around that sanctioned or not everybody accepts and welcomes. Every building has canvas potential –  some more than one canvas.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Sea of Otters

So, they’re either middle age or within spitting distance; we’re not getting kids with MTV dreams (or would they be American Idol dreams?) Heck, I never watch videos and never seen one worth watching! Not then, not now.  But the thing about the older cats, they’ve learned how to play and how to play together. Sea of Otters – dang clever name – prepositions are the shortest words in the language, yet this one placement changes an entire species! – sort of looked frumpy and a little too relaxed when they started their set, but the energy of their songs dissolved age-bias preconceptions. Their guitar based, neo jam band grooves seemed the perfect musical compliment to a breezy early summer late afternoon free of humidity. From the first song on, their bright, improvisation-laced sound enraptured.  It was one of those sets, where the children on the AstroTurf danced to the beat, those seated around the ground level stage paused their chatter and soon swayed with the sound and many of those passing through stopped to hear then stayed to the end of the set.
Their sound reminded me of Blues Traveller and Phish, but with less indulgence and fatter hooks, mid-tempo romps that allowed room for extended guitar work.  The audience was with them by the third song or so. Maybe some of their songs sounded a little too similar, but that seemed okay. They all had an infectious bounce, yet edgy, trippy lyrics. Towards the end of the set, the back up singer took the mike for a rip-roaring cover of because the Night, replete with a searing, gleefully long guitar solo.

What a fun band. They had a great set. Last year, the band had reformed after an extended hiatus and played a less than memorable set. Amazing the difference a year can make, these guys were tighter. The bounce in their songs had also a choppy kind of stop-on-a-dime suspense that seemed to touch on distant influences of Peter Tosh and Thelonoius Monk.
The musician had a familiarity with each other, a shared sense of purpose that the songs were bigger than the players that can only come with experience. The guitarist and lead singer said about the other guitarist that they had been playing for 30 years. The musicianship on exhibit at Groove on Grove was the type that only comes with age; the musicians seemed to encourage each other. They were filled with surprises. These old dogs came to the stage with some new tricks. It’s always that way with your good friends, you are eager to see each other and always have something new to tell them.  

These pictures aren’t that great, sorry, although great is not exactly the adjective that comes to mind with the best of shots on Dislocations. The only seat I could find was a patch of concrete behind the sound board. The Sea of Otters attracted and kept the attention of a larger than usual crowd. Think of it s a different angle on a Groove on Grove blog post.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

New Lunar New Year

I always like it when I can blog about a mural as work in progress then return again when it’s completed. I am assuming it’s completed because the art store, who the artist told me facilitate the project, had put up a sign New Mural by Lunar New Year, although I wish they would have just said New Lunar New Year.
Lunar New Year – check out his website – is a young artist. After the first blog, I talked to him a couple of times at the mural site. The two men are friends of his. One time he was using a picture of the man to finish an eye. I asked him about other details, but he’s reticent – in a nice, arrogant-free way – about explaining too much.
The bird cage, the circle of life sign on the front of the baseball cap in the cage, which hovers above what looks like the leg and talons of a bird, impaled by an arrow, the meaning of this surrealistic feature evades specific interpretation of these images as symbols. I love the expression of the two faces, what ever is in their gaze inspires what seems like serenity, a kind of peaceful respect, perhaps even an acceptance of their own awe. The hand signs may be indecipherable to me, but for the two men they obviously have significance and purpose. This reflects back on the bird cage symbology, while still remaining inexplicable, is evocative as a visualization of what ever has captured their gaze. Overall, I get a palpable sense of stoicism.
Lunar New Year’s website is quite entertaining. My first impression is surrealism as a movement in the arts. I loved reading Andre Breton, love Salvador Dali. I see images juxtaposed, I immediately lean towards allegory and analogy. These old models may be lacking when applied to the interpreting some current uses of images. Having seen the artist work from a photograph of each man, it’s remarkable how accurate this immense reproduction is, but the identity of the men just as the bird cage and what it contains, is ultra esoteric, inside jokes for small cadre. The website calls it “Meta,” which also indicates that there is a secret code. Look at the “signature” on the side of the building, and on the asphalt just in front of the art. Obscure symbols. Even the artist’s alias – Lunar New Year – is derived from an acronym of his real name.
These clues of code maybe unlock something personal in the artist, but I have a feeling following this line of deduction would be tedious. Would finding out more about the men and their friendship inform how well the gold drops of liquid – perspiration? Tears? Holy water? – floating around the fingers are drawn or what those drops mean. The obscurity invites you more into the art, emphasizing that its meaning is not about actual information, but the feelings evoked. The aqua blue background  flickers like an apparition as it floats around them, the edges fading into the stone exterior of the building.
 I love the size, this is an immense work. I love the vertical design, makes you realize how horizontal the other murals are. The details are amazing, this painting looks like a sketch but minutia like the drops, the zipper teeth, and the wrinkles along the knuckles, the glint in the eye are rendered realistically yet ties into the emotionality of the piece.
 The men are literally giants. They aren’t watching over us, they’re looking in another direction. We would like to see what they see, maybe we already do.

check out website:

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Wall Tape Dispenser


Mural by Norm Kirby is how this was titled for its debut on a JC Fridays Friday earlier this month. Kirby is a artist and sometime street artist with a fun and engaging illustrative style. As Jersey City murals go, this one’s minimalist, the starkness of the black and white colors and the focus on a sole object stands in contrast to the other murals not just around town but at this address, 172 Newark Avenue, one of the most art friendly buildings in downtown, which also wears murals of a whale and tigers.

This piece of exterior did sport this stencil from  an anonymous street artist for a while.

“Why a mural of a tape dispenser,” I asked.

“It’s something I see everyday,” Kirby told me. Now we all do, but of course we all already we had. You don’t even need to work in an office to know a tape dispenser and even those who never work in an office still have been in an office and who says the tape dispenser has to be limited to an office? I can’t think of an object more common, which makes it an object worth objectivity in art. I’m not sure if this painting makes the ordinary scotch tape dispenser more extraordinary, but it certainly makes this ordinary brick wall a little more extraordinary.

Of course any great painting is just the end result that follows a succession of sketches, but how to do a useable exterior mural on a pad? Luckily, there are abandoned buildings available in Town providing useful exterior canvases.

The ladies treat me kindly/and they furnish me with tape/but deep inside my heart/I know I can’t escape -- Bob Dylan

Fountain Frolic

The First Day of Summer came in shouting I am summer, I am here to stay, stronger than ever thanks go Global Warming. Forecasters had predicted temperatures will rise to 100, but in Washington Square Park it only reached 97 and you know, it wasn’t that bad, it only felt like 95. The fountain was on, its pool filled. Time to frolic. Sitting on the steps, women slipped off their sandals and dip their toes in the water. Adult males went full body, Adult females never go further than their feet. Children of both genders play and splash. They're the ones who understand the frolic. The sun and heat felt good and the water felt refreshing in the sun and the heat.

Friday, June 22, 2012

FIRE: Coles & Columbus

Columbus was closed to traffic from Monmouth to Varick/Coles. The street changes name on either side of Columbus but both Varick and Coles were closed off for a block as well. You could smell dank smoke, feel it in the air. Nobody was hurt. Emergency medical vehicles were parked with the fire trucks, unused gurneys at the ready. The siren lights were flashing but the sirens were off.  They were still trying to find out how the fire started. The fire was in the basement of this abandoned building.  That's what people said. It had been put out, but they were inspecting the other floors just to be safe. A couple of days ago, there was a fire in the building at the corner of Jersey & Columbus. I don’t think the people have moved back there yet. Caroline’s laundry is on the ground floor, has not reopened. But this building is abandoned, has been for a while. The fire was out by the time I  saw this scene, the firemen were relaxed, joking with each, the worse over, everyone getting ready to go, just making sure. You could still smell the smoke from nearly a block away, weighted down by the humid summer air.

Othello: Making Relevant the Subtext of Tragedy

By William Shakespeare
As performed by the
Hudson Shakespeare Company(website here:
June 15, 2012 in Van Vorst Park, Jersey City

Small lamps illuminate a section of lawn at Van Vorst Park, banners vaguely resembling coats of arms are draped on what look like easels, acting as backdrops creating a stage for this entertaining, intelligent and refreshingly relevant rendition of Othello by the Hudson Shakespeare Company. The mosquitos, out in force this year, annoy, and the sounds of traffic, kids from the nearby playground, and adults on cellphones distract, but only for a second or two. Summer is here again, and so is open air-Shakespeare.
Othello starts off with a scenario that could easily be farce – at the urging of an underling, the title character jumps to the wrong conclusion about the faithfulness of his wife and the supporting evidence is the whereabouts of a flowered handkerchief – but gradually the farce unfolds into the most disturbing tragedy in the folio. Even Titus, for all its bloodletting, for its rape and maiming and extreme pathos, cannot match the shock you feel when Othello strangles Desdemona in their bed. An outdoor summer venue enhances the going-ons; the 7:00 PM start time means a bright ambience and by the time most of major characters are slain, the sun has set and as if on cue, night is everywhere.

Through casting and direction, this Othello has some subtle contemporary shadings, enhancing the relevance of this play. One of my favorite Shakespeare’s, this play has personal significance for me only because of the impact it had when I studied it in College. I re-read the play before the Van Vorst performance, re-read the Othello chapter in Bloom’s Invention of the Human and listened to the Bloom lecture on Othello. What can I say; I’m a reader and literature geek.
How satisfying a Shakespeare performance is probably most due to the level of awareness of the director and players possess of ellipses and subtext. The bard leaves information out, prompting the audience (as well as actors and directors) to ponder how those spaces should be filled in. Most of Shakespeare’s themes are more below than above the surface of the language, character and plot. There is always more subtext (or potential interpretations of the subtext) than text and we all know, there’s a ton of text. The casting as well as direction with the Hudson production fills in ellipses and subtext with some subtle yet poignant contemporary touches, enriching this unnerving play with a tangible modern relevance.
The Othello plot – at least the first three acts – unfolds like a comedy of misunderstanding. The story opens in Venice, with the news that Othello (Michael Hagins), a mercenary officer, of African descent – the Moor – in charge of protecting the city from the Turks, aka Ottommites has eloped with Desdemona (Melissa Meli), a woman of Venetian upperclasses. At the same time, the Moor has promoted Cassio (Reynaldo Piniella) to his second in command, above Iago (Jon Ciccarelli), who out of resentment wreaks revenge by confusing Othello that this newly betrothed is having an affair with Cassio. The circumstantial evidence Iago uses is a handkerchief given to Desdemona by Othello and found by Iago’s wife, Emilia (Laura Mae Baker), which Iago places in Cassio’s possession. When Othello sees the hanky in question, he goes ballistic.

 Now, consider that scenario. Iago is messing with a couple, wrong conclusions are reached, jealousy expressed. It is farcical and this Othello amps up the comedy, especially in Roderigo (Mark Levy), played as a big lumbering duffus with some highly amusing physical comedy from the actor. He’s fun to watch. Roderigo, a Venetian, is in love with Desdemona. Considering that this is the best mate material the city’s gentry has to offer, it is no wonder she crosses class and racial lines to partner with the dashing if volatile general. Iago enlists the fool in his sinister agenda. Not only was the emphasized comic aspects of the scenario not out of place, it likewise intensified the tragedy. Othello is upsetting. The play contains one of the most disturbing scenes in all of Shakespeare – in all of Western literature – when Othello strangles Desdemona in bed. The immediate repercussion of this horrific act is more blood letting. Othello commits a violent suicide. A shocking yarn, always powerful, timeless, and tragic.

 The bifurcation of the Hudson Othello makes the violence even more searing. One can’t help but compare it to Tarantino where snappy, comic dialog comfortably coexist with violence and gore. This whiplash effect demands attention, and when it feels natural to the story as it does with this staging of Othello, the result is engaging, provocative entertainment.

Iago, one of Shakespeare’s most intelligent characters, and at first he always gains our sympathy, we understand the resentment he feels about Cassio, who is not a battle-tested veteran of war like Iago. As casted, Iago is visibly older than Othello by more than a decade. This casting choice adds a timely element that brings the audience further into the play. We are living in age of ever evolving status quo. Social upheaval created by economic rapid restructuring and even adapting to new technologies have made it more common that a middle age worker has a younger boss, or has been passed over for promotion and seen a younger colleague advance. Baby boomer revenge against Gen X/Y is a contemporary fantasy, or fear, depending on your age.

How far will Iago go? It’s not until Othello collapses from Iago’s insinuation about Cassio and Desdemona’s that the Van Vorst performance indicates his vengeance knows no limits. We suddenly realize the man is a sociopath, but by then the pedal is to the metal and everyone was at the edge of their lawn chair regardless of how familiar they are with the story of the Moor. By this time, the Iago performance has encouraged us to give him the benefit of the doubt, the shock is a reversal and we are left in dumbfounded awe as we realize how limitless Iago’s vengeance will be.

In the text, the stage direction for Othello is “trance.” Hagis goes into a full epileptic convulsions, clinical and grotesque. He’s been on the verge of a breakdown, evidence by subtle mannerisms like a twitching hand held to his temple. A gleeful Iago crouches above his body. The comedy is over, the irrevocable horror has begun.

 Othello’s marriage to Desdemona faces three obstacle: race, class and age. That last one is practically eliminated by the casting. No longer is it a middle age Othello with a teenage virgin – about the same age as Juliet, twenty something – this casting by shifting the subtext away from age not only alleviates the old chestnut that Othello is impotent and/or fearful of a young woman’s sexual appetite (although the latter is still a reason Iago implies, that Desdemona’s insatiability supports the allegation of infidelity with Cassio) – it heightens the class and racial tension that Othello feels – and Iago exploits – concerning his recent marriage.

 By having her older and as portrayed, a more modern woman, her virginity is not an issue, which makes her murder by Othello even more ghastly. The famous line “I’ll not shed her blood, nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow,” which precedes the strangulation, takes on a new meaning – the blood shedding was thought to have meant her hymen, I took it here, along with scar, that he is not going to mutilate but choke, emphasizing the method of murder like an expert killer would. The white skin than snow now deals the race card – has Iago triggered a learned distrust of whites that this Othello feels – he spent part of his life a slave and even Cassio as casted is a lighter skinned man of color. When Othello is questioning his new wife about where is the prized handkerchief, and later brings it up as they lay in bed and he is preparing to kill her, the internal racial feelings seem at the surface of the line delivery and Desdemona’s shock – earlier when he interrogates her about something as silly as the “napkin” and later when he accuses her of infidelity on the basis of the same cloth – is the surprise that she has transcended the racial issues and her realization that her husband has not. Her performance references another contemporary conundrum all married couples can relate to: this person is not acting like the person I thought I married. Let’s face it, even a younger Desdemona would be hard pressed to convey virginity in this day and age, but by taking that off the table through the age and mannerisms of the actress, not only is this Desdemona more realistic, the lack of naiveté makes her murder truly horrifying. She sees it coming, realizing that her love and trust was one sided. She had married a stranger.

Laura Mae Baker as Emilia becomes the fulcrum that makes this new albeit subtle reinterpretation so convincing. I was going to add feminist to modify reinterpretation but Shakespeare is well aware that women being trapped in second class status is the unjust consequence of a social power structure dominated solely by men. The director is smart enough to know that adding emphasis to that notion, inherent in the text, makes his Othello more relevant to our contemporary mindset. Emilia and Desdemona practically steal the show at the end of act four. Desdemona is preparing for bed with the help Emilia. Desdemona sings a song she remembered from childhood, and the actress was able to do a loud version – enough to be audible above the din of traffic – yet never abandoning character, never making the song sound out of place, i.e., not being sung in a bed chamber by an amateur. Desdemona is saying how women should know their place, and Emilia eventually informs her “have not we affections, desires for sport and frailty, as men have? Then let them use us well; else let them know, the ills we do, their ills instruct us so.” In this very well played scene, Desdemona is being taught by Emilia to have a modern, feminist sensibility – women are human beings, the same as men, but because men are in power, women are not seen as equals and are subjugated to whims, dysfunctions and the violent manifestations of the paranoid neurosis of male power.

The relationship between Emilia and Desdemona is the only true love – the only pure trust – in this bleak ballad of manipulation. The women are sinned against – even Elizabethan audiences would not be surprised by this idea – but Shakespeare, as focused through these two actresses, makes a contemporary statement which of course is supported by the soon to follow death bed scene. Othello’s strength is for hurting – he is a military man after all – and “their ills” is how Emilia identifies Othello’s inner turmoil about racial identity and his adherence to outdated ideas that Desdemona, as an empowered friend of her “sister” and mentor, Emilia, no longer believes. Desdemona’s love for Othello is genuine; when she realizes her husband will murder her, we share her fear, a combination of terror and heart-breaking disappointment. Baker’s performance in the bedroom scene enables us to see the non-virgin thus non-naive Desdemona as an empowered woman whose world is imploding amplifies the relevancy of the disturbing climatic scene at the core of this drama – and that relevancy was only made possible by the Emilia performance.

 After the murder, Everyone is gathered in the Emilia and we find out that Emilia is the smartest one in the play, she is the first one to realize that her has husband has duped everybody for his own psychotic ambition and has to explain “dull moor, that handkerchief thou speak’st of I found by fortune, and did give my husband…” Emilia knows that she will be slain and Iago soon gives her a death cut with his dagger, but just as her feminist outlook empowered Desdemona, her valor in revealing her husband’s guild, empowers the Moor to complete the tragedy with an honorable suicide.“I have done the state some service and they know’,” says Othello. He knows that his legacy of protecting Venice would get him off a murder rap, but Othello is essentially a man of honor and it is Emilia who reminds him of his better nature.

The suicide is staged like a seppuku, the Japanese ritual suicide in the name of honor. I felt like calling a florist to order the chrysanthemums. The nod to an Asian system of values – westerners tend to believe suicide by definition is repulsive and defeatist – added an international flavor to the play, another layer of relevancy courteous of the Hudson players.

Driven by vengeance, Iago is supremely intelligent. He knows the Moor better than Othello knows himself. Othello is easily manipulated, confirming my college professor’s analysis that his virtues were his vices; i.e., what made him great in battle made him weak at the domestic front. Iago has a fatal limit to his intelligence– he underestimated his own wife. His own wife, out of honor, love and a sense of justice that transcends the masquerade of comradeship by the mercenary soldiers, reveals the truth about Iago, fully aware this act will lead to her death. Iago’s evil intelligence has led to violent death and he himself is to be led away to be tortured at the end of the final scene. We ultimately hate Iago, but we love and forgive the Moor, because Othello realizes the wrong he has done, accepts his punishment and knows that only he can inflict that punishment. What is the evil, what is the wrong? Misogyny. Othello could not love as genuinely as Desdemona because he could not abandoned his misogyny, here intractably intertwined with racial attitudes, towards women. By killing himself, Othello redeems himself and that redemption was made possibly only by Emilia. He personally validates the feminist ideal.

 My camera battery crapped out half way through, so I was unable to document more scenes. I am amazed these young actors can pull of Shakespeare with no amplification and competing with all the other noises of an urban park. But as it has done for half a millennia, the language of the bard overcomes all obstacles. Feminism was always part of the subtext of the play; the Hudson Shakespeare Company showed how it was also crucial to the tragedy.

Othello - Michael Hagins
 Desdemona - Melissa Meli
  Iago -  Jon Ciccarelli
 Emilia -  Laura Mae Baker
 Brabantio/Lodovico -  Tom Cox
 Duke/Montano -  David Rosenberg
 Senator/ Bianca/Gratiano - Julie Robles
 Cassio -  Reynaldo Piniella
 Roderigo - Mark Levy