Review of reviews: Art & Music
Exhibit of the week
Gauguin: Artist as Alchemist
Art Institute of Chicago, through Sept. 10
Paul Gauguin could never be accused of having a one-track mind, said Steve Johnson in the Chicago Tribune. This summer’s big Gauguin exhibition in Chicago is essentially an invitation to step inside the artist’s buzzing, magpie brain, and “it’s a pretty special place to try to occupy.” Sure, the onetime French stockbroker will always be the guy who went to Tahiti in the late 19th century and there produced a string of canvases that added island exoticism to the post-impressionist canon. But Gauguin was also producing ceramics, making sculpture that incorporated found objects, painting furniture, and generally erasing the boundary between the fine arts and other modes of expression. The Chicago retrospective includes 70 paintings, many “astonishing.” But the paintings are outnumbered by “a riot” of delightful 3-D objects, and the Gauguin who emerges is “an ur- modernist— one who would pave the way for Picasso and Matisse and beyond.”
The willful primitivism of Gauguin’s iconic paintings turns out to have been the product of years of purposeful effort, said Mary Tompkins Lewis in The Wall Street Journal. Gauguin (1848–1903) made wood carvings when he was a young sailor, for example, and the presence of some of those humble works—as well as folk carvings he collected—prove that he valued the objects for decades. There’s even an 1880 Camille Pissarro drawing of Gauguin whittling— displayed next to the figurine the younger artist was working on. When Gauguin discovered ceramics several years later, he eagerly embraced the power of happy accidents, transforming the unpredictable effects of the firing process into faces and figures. He also used finished work to create recurring motifs—planting a carved mug in a portrait painting, for example, or repeating the same figure from an 1887 drawing in his sculptural Cup Decorated With the Figure of a Bathing Girl.
But Gauguin rarely performed “alchemy,” as the show’s title suggests, said Frederick Stephens in NewCityArt.com. Instead of conjuring gold from raw materials of little worth, Gauguin “turned gold into a base metal, a much harder trick.” Though he was acutely aware of the violence French colonialism visited on the people of Tahiti, he often did the opposite of romanticizing the individuals he considered victims. With the 1901 painting And the Gold of Their Bodies, “he took two young, beautiful Tahitian women and made them stand for flesh, blood, sex, and race.” With the 1902–03 wood carving Saint Orang, he transformed a local constable he didn’t like into a masturbating orangutan. In short, he aimed to instigate arguments. So here’s mine: This show demonstrates that Gauguin was not just a great painter. He was one of the 19th century’s best sculptors, probably its best printmaker, and “hands down” its best potter.
Lana Del Rey
Lust for Life
Lana Del Rey has just made “a jarring pivot,” said Lindsay Zoladz in TheRinger.com. Until now, the dour neocrooner has been studiously apolitical, evoking Old Hollywood glamour while singing “slightly curdled” pop ballads about toxic relationships. But times have changed, and on her fourth album in five years, the 32-year-old is touching, “at least fleetingly,” on realities beyond the personal. Lust for Life, at 72 minutes, “feels like an album that can’t quite figure out what it wants to be.” But it includes some of Del Rey’s best tracks yet—and shows a new interest in addressing the yearnings and worries of others. Even as Lust for Life “blows up the idea of what a Lana Del Rey song can be about,” it still blends “sunbleached, slow-motion” California pop with hip-hop aesthetics, said Craig Jenkins in NYMag.com. The instrumentation is lush. The bass throbs underfoot. And whether Lana is joined by Stevie Nicks (“Beautiful People Beautiful Problems”) or rapper A$AP Rocky (“Summer Bummer”), her voice “billows straight down the middle as always.”
In a move that’s sure to divide fans, Arcade Fire is “pushing against the boundaries of its template,” said Jem Aswad in Variety.com. Apparently bored with being one of the world’s biggest rock bands, the Grammywinning Canadian outfit is using its fifth album to try on other styles—mutations of R&B, 1970s pop, and even dancehall included. And though some experiments work gloriously (including the Abba-inspired title track), many “hang awkwardly” on the band. The result is “a record without a signature sound,” said Philip Cosores in ConsequenceOfSound.net. On “Chemistry,” an attempt at trumpet-led dub “results in a watch-checking, three-and-a-half-minute debacle,” while frontman Win Butler merely sounds goofy when he attempts a Debbie Harry–style rap on “Signs of Life.” The single “Everything Now,” with its propulsive bass line and orchestral flourishes, deservedly will become Arcade Fire’s biggest hit yet. Elsewhere, Butler and company prove fearless, but they’re “giving up being beloved in favor of being ambitious.”
Tyler, the Creator
The quandary Tyler Okonma has always posed for listeners is “how to reconcile the genius with the foulmouthed punk,” said Sheldon Pearce in Pitchfork.com. Since releasing his first mixtape eight years ago, the California rapper has alienated even erstwhile fans with juvenile lyrics that indulge in violent fantasies and homophobic slurs. Finally, though, Tyler has ditched the prankster antics for self-reflection, releasing a “transformational, lovestruck” album, a “beautifully colored” collage of memories and daydreams in which he grapples with loneliness, unrequited love, and, in a surprise twist, his sexual attraction to men. “Rappers don’t typically do this,” said Tom Breihan in Stereogum.com. “It’s heavy stuff,” and you sense Tyler made the album more for himself than anyone else. That’s admirable, but “it’s also indulgent,” especially because so many tracks play like quiet-storm soul. Songs like “Glitter” and “Garden Shed” will give some listeners reason to prefer Tyler’s wistful side. Personally, I miss “the naked force” of his earlier work.