Category: Travel

Photo Diary: The Profundis Room at the Santa Catalina convent in Arequipa.

In the novice courtyard at the Santa Catalina monastery in Arequipa, Peru. (Photos by C-M.)

One of Arequipa, Peru’s most stunning sights is the Santa Catalina monastery — a sprawling, blocks-long walled compound that serves as a religious city within a city, a labyrinthine array of cells and chapels and gathering spaces for an order of well-to-do-creole nuns, founded in the 16th century. One of its more remarkable sights has to be the Profundis Room, or former mortuary, where the portraits of deceased nuns line the walls. Literally, the portraits are of nuns that have recently died. A most interesting memento mori…

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Photo Diary: Korean haircuts in Cuzco.

Apparently, this is a thing in Cuzco: so-called ‘Korean haircuts’ — as in haircuts inspired by K-Pop bands. Neither the people getting the haircuts or giving them are Korean, which makes this even more intriguing. And Peru doesn’t have a significant Korean population. (In fact, if there is a Korean population, it’s so small it doesn’t turn up in the official census stats.) Yet, somehow, K-Pop has entered the cultural ether (likely through the internet) and a few salons around town cater to lovers of the genre’s studiously disheveled shag ‘dos.

O.C. Report: Adventures in Insanely Awesome Public Art.

Some days in Orange County you’re cruising along to Wal-Mart, minding your own business, when you stumble right into a monumental piece of sculptural spectacularness. I found these austere-yet-noble representations of the family on the corner of Portola and Alton in Lake Forest, the sprawling Southern California community that is otherwise known as the home of megachurch pastor Rick Warren. I know it’s totally cliché to call anything in O.C. fascist. (I worked at Fascist Island one Christmas.) But this little Gesamtkunstwerk has fatherland written all over it: Arno Breker meets Josef Thorak, but with more modest clothing.

All I gotta say is: worth the trip. Especially if paired with a visit to the In-N-Out Burger nearby.

Photo Diary: A nostalgia trip to Crystal Bridges.

Gold star for best early republic hairdo: A detail from Edward Dalton Marchant’s 1830 portrait of Samuel Beals Thomas and his family at the Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, Arkansas. (Photos by C-M.)

First thing’s first: yes, the museum has greeters. Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, I can talk a little bit about my visit to Crystal Bridges, the new American art museum founded by Alice Walton, daughter of Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart and one of the ten richest woman in America. (Alice: If you’re reading this, please feel free to send $25 to our Kickstarter.)

A view of the reflecting pond at Crystal Bridges.

Before the museum opened its doors in November of last year, it’d been at the center of all kinds of industry scuttlebutt. One, there’s the principal patron: Walton herself, a folksy, albeit uber-rich gal, who chooses not to run with the jet set in the Bermuda Art Triangle of London, New York, Berlin — instead preferring to buy her artworks while sitting on top of a horse. Then there are her aggressive collecting practices (as in: actively pursuing a collection belonging to a  university with a gallery and an ctive art department, which has earned her plenty of criticism). And of course, there’s the connection to Wal-Mart, a company renowned for its cheap goods, underpaid workers and, these days, a spectacular bribery scandal in Mexico. To be clear: the museum is a separate legal entity from the corporation. But it’s Wal-Mart money, directly or indirectly, that’s paying for all the art niceties. (For anyone who would like to get on their high horse about this, it’s worth noting that it was copper mining money — and lots of poor Chilean miners — that paid for Frank Lloyd Wright’s spiraling ramp at the Guggenheim. And oil money that made MoMA possible. And don’t even get me started about Henry Clay Frick, who was by all accounts, a terrific cad.)

Lastly, the other factor that has kept the museum on the tips of people’s tongues is the fact that it’s located in Bentonville — the sort of thing that has raised a few sneers of derision from people who think they need passports to visit New Jersey. (To that latter point I say: Why not Bentonville? I don’t see anyone in the art industry bellyaching about going to admire all that sparkling aluminum in Barfa Marfa.) All of which begs the question: What is the museum like? It’s a query I’ve gotten repeatedly since my visit, with a curiosity that often borders on the lascivious, as if I’d been admitted to be a guest in Liberace’s living room.

My answer: Crystal Bridges is damn good.

For one, the setting is lovely: 120 acres of Ozark forest set around a creek from which the museum takes it’s name. Two, even though Moshe Safdie’s buildings don’t exactly recede into the background, they are intriguing and work well as a museum. A series of structures shaped like armadillo shells surround a brilliant reflecting pond. You descend into the building rather than climb a grand staircase to reach the main entrance, making it feel earthy-humble. And the galleries are regularly interrupted by floor-to-ceiling glass panels that allow viewers to take a breather from all the art. Lastly, the collection is engaging, especially the galleries devoted to 19th century painting — with works by all kinds of brand-name artists such as Asher Brown Durand, Thomas Moran, Martin Johnson Heade, John Singer Sargent and Thomas Eakins. There is also enough weird stuff — a painting of a chimpanzee thinking — to keep things interesting. Personally, I’d go back in a heartbeat. Even if the collection falls apart after World War II. But whatevs. Lord knows I don’t need to go to northwest Arkansas to see Ab-Ex.

A view of some of the 19th century galleries, featuring a rare nude.

That said, the museum (at least for now) is definitely a feel-good, all-American experience. That’s probably not a total surprise given that the bulk of the collection is colonial and 19th century painting — a time when Americans (at least the white ones in power who were making and commissioning art) were feeling pretty good about themselves. The works on view reflect lots of wide open landscape. Oodles of promise. A sunny sense of purpose. In its aggregate, it channels the optimism of the Westward Expansion — cue the Aaron Copland — which shouldn’t be entirely surprising, since Arkansas lies right in the path of that history. There are portraits of Indian leaders (yet no visual acknowledgement of the violence and loss they endured) and while a couple of pieces hint at slavery, none of them even begin to match the sense of foreboding of, say, Winslow Homer’s Gulf Stream. Overall, it’s a safe, clean-cut environment — channeling an American wholesomeness that never existed. In fact, in a conversation I had with artist Chris Albert about the museum for an upcoming podcast, he pointed out that he’s counted exactly two works that feature nudity.

Sam Walton's office, as he left it, preserved in the Wal-Mart Visitor Center and Museum.

All of this brings me to Bentonville’s historic center — home of Sam Walton’s first five and dime, and the cradle of all things Wal-Mart. Unlike the historic districts in many smaller American towns, this one is being used by a mix of restaurants, cafes and a bike shop. Right on the plaza lies Walton’s 5-10, with a red Ford F-150 — just like the one that Sam drove — parked out front. (See the last image in this slideshow.) It is a perfect picture of the all-American Main Street. Except it’s really an illusion. Walton’s original 5-10 is now a museum with a gift shop that sells vintage candies and Coke in glass bottles. Nobody is doing their real shopping there. Just like nobody is driving the red pick-up truck parked out front. It’s just a prop. The real action is at Wal-Mart Store #100, on the main business thoroughfare just west of downtown, a vast concrete warehouse that is surrounded by an ocean of parking — where folksy Americana gives way to the reality of made-in-China Batman underwear. The two parts of the city are a stunning juxtaposition: the behemoth that helped destroy Main Street presenting its own trapped-in-amber version of Main Street, complete with Ford pick-up.

An allegorical painting (c. 1872) by John Gast depicting 'American Progress.' (Courtesy of Wikipedia.)

My parents are from South America, from cultures that always seems to live with one foot stuck firmly in the past. Where people always talk about things being better before the Conquest, before the war (pick one), before the dictator, before the C.I.A. got involved.One of the distinct aspects of Carlos Fuentes’ novel Aura is that past and present seem to co-exist at all times. This is one of those traits that I’d always considered distinctly Latin American. Conversely, I’d always thought of the United States as a place where shit got done: where railways were laid out, cities built and gold mined, where people always looked to the future. But the trip to Bentonville made me realise how we have a become a culture that prefers to look backwards — from the faux vintage wallpaper and 1930s cocktails served at every hipstery Brooklyn eatery to the Fox News anchors who pine for a return to Main Street values (whatever those may have been). There seems to be a consensus that there was a time when things were good and that time is definitely in the past. At a point when things are contracting economically, Americans seem to be in love with the idea that we are still a nation of Manifest Destiny. And Crystal Bridges, bursting with can-do pioneer spirit, couldn’t more perfectly channel the national mood.

Crystal Bridges is open every day except Tuesday and admission is free. My conversation with Chris Albert will appear as a podcast of the Dead Hare Radio Hour. Stay tuned.

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Miscellany. 02.07.12.

Banana man, Lima. (Photo by El Celso.)