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Musées pour tout le monde: Chicago, pas si on the make que ca

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Roy Lichtenstein, “Artist’s Studio ‘Foot Medication,'” 1974. The Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of Edlis/Neeson Collection. © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein. Part of the ongoing exhibition The New Contemporary at the Art Institute of Chicago. Image courtesy the Art Institute of Chicago.

CHICAGO — What value is art to a society if it isn’t accessible to all sectors of a society?

Several years ago, with New York’s Museum of Modern Art taking the lead, museums in the United States jacked up their basic admission past the $20 threshold. (At MoMA, an adult ticket is now $23; seniors pay $16, unrealistic given their fixed incomes; students $12; and children 16 and under get in for free.) A notable exception is Fort Worth’s Amon Carter Museum of American Art, which, by decree of its newspaperman founder, who wanted future generations of children to have access he did not, is always free. At the Metropolitan Museum, officials cleverly hide that the visitor can pay what s/he wants (part of the museum’s mandate) by putting the information in small letters, with a suggested admission price ($25) much larger. And for advanced purchase on the ‘Net, the pay-as-you-like option does not exist. The alternative to these high single admission fees — that lets museums present an affordable option, at least for locals —  is the annual all-access membership card. But here, not all offers are equal.

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Edward Hopper. “Gas, 1940.” The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Mrs. Simon Guggenheim Fund, 1943. © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY. From the exhibition America after the Fall: Painting in the 1930s, running at the Art Institute of Chicago through September 18.  Image courtesy the Art Institute of Chicago.

Not only is MoMA’s individual annual rate almost the same as the Art Institute’s essentially dual rate — $85 versus $95 — but the former’s dual rate of $140 has an additional restriction the latter’s does not: The two users need to always be the same. At the Art Institute, the basic year membership of $95 includes admission for two adults, *only one of whom needs to be a card-holder*, and free admission for all children under 18. In other words, you can bring as many of your visiting single cousins from Texas and their broods of 10 children (not to mention your cousins from the South Side) with you as you want as long as it’s on different visits. And you can also bring them along to the members-only classes, workshops, and other events.

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Charles Green Shaw, ” Wrigley’s, 1937,” from the exhibition America after the Fall: Painting in the 1930s, running at the Art Institute of Chicago through September 18.  Restricted gift of the Alsdorf Foundation. The Art Institute of Chicago. Image courtesy the Art Institute of Chicago.

But what about the offer? See below (and above) for samples from some current and upcoming shows in the city which — from the generous member admission deal at its Art Institute, anyway — no longer seems to live down to native son Nelson Algren’s depiction of  a “City on the Make,” mayor Rahm Emmanuel’s sweeping privatization of public services notwithstanding.

What the Art Institute is, however, is a museum in a museum-like setting, situated two blocks from the oceanic Lake Michigan in one direction and three from the old-school Chicago river, with its old-fashioned wood and wrought-iron bridges, in the other. Even the bathrooms, with their large rectangular art deco sinks, are fit for a museum.

— Paul Ben-Itzak

PS: As far as bargain-rate museum going, anyway, the City of Paris outdoes both New York and Chicago, with a Paris musées card that for 40 Euros (60 if you want to bring a guest of your choice, and 20 for those under 26 years old) provides access to 14 municipal museums, including the Modern Art Museum of the City of Paris, the Petit Palais, and the Musée de la Vie Romantique.

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Edward Hopper. “New York Movie,” 1939. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Given anonymously, 1941. From the exhibition America after the Fall: Painting in the 1930s, running at the Art Institute of Chicago through September 18. Courtesy the Art Institute of Chicago.

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Running from October 2 through January 3, 2017 at the Art Institute of Chicago,
Moholy-Nagy: Future Present is the first retrospective in 50 years dedicated to the pioneering multi-media artist who, after teaching at Bauhaus in Germany from 1923 through 1928, in 1937 founded Chicago’s New Bauhaus school, today the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology. Above: László Moholy-Nagy, “A 19,”  1927. Hattula Moholy-Nagy, Ann Arbor, Michigan. © 2016 Hattula Moholy-Nagy/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy the Art Institute of Chicago.

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László Moholy-Nagy, “Behind the Back of the Gods,” 1928. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Ford Motor Company Collection, Gift of Ford Motor Company and John C. Waddell, 1987, 1987.1100.23. © 2016 Hattula Moholy-Nagy/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy the Art Institute of Chicago.

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Featuring 100 photographs, and running through August 14 at the Art Institute of Chicago, the exhibition Aaron Siskind: Abstractions  examines some of Siskind’s most influential abstract photographs and series, capturing what the artist referred to as “the drama of objects.” Above: Aaron Siskind, “Chicago 224 1953,” 1953. The Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of Noah Goldowsky. Image courtesy the Art Institute of Chicago.

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Andy Warhol, “Little Race Riot,” 1964. The Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of Edlis/Neeson Collection. © 2015 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Part of the ongoing exhibition The New Contemporary  at the Art Institute of Chicago. Image courtesy the Art Institute of Chicago.

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Andy Warhol, “Big Electric Chair,” 1967-68. The Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of Edlis/Neeson Collection. © 2015 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Part of the ongoing exhibition The New Contemporary at the Art Institute of Chicago. Courtesy the Art Institute of Chicago.

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Max Beckmann, “Birdplay,”1949. The Art Institute of Chicago, Margaret Fisher Endowment Fund. Part of the exhibition Master Drawings Unveiled: 25 Years of Major Acquisitions, on view at the Art Institute of Chicago from August 27 through January 29, 2017. Image courtesy the Art Institute of Chicago.

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Unidentified artist, “Genealogical Tree of the Mercedarian Order,” mid-18th century. Carl and Marilynn Thoma Collection. Part of the exhibition From Doctrine and Devotion: Art of the Religious Orders in the Spanish Andes, running through June 25, 2017 at the Art Institute of Chicago. Image courtesy the Art Institute of Chicago.

 

Exposed! Intoxicated in Pantin, POP’d in Paris

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Alanig Keltz,”Passerelle Debilly.” Image copyright and courtesy Alanig Keltz. See more of the artist’s work on his website.

PARIS — So there I was all set to argue that the only truly transgressive visual artists are those who make graffiti, because except when commissioned, they risk a fine (amende) every time they put chalk to wall or shake up an aerosol color can. Then I decided to take my Brourcq — tea break on the banks of the Ourcq canal — only to find two men in gas masks fervently attacking a metal industrial hut with their spray-cans, the fumes respirable by everyone downwind of them (and who unlike them did not have the benefit of protective masks). These two ‘artists’ were basically flipping the finger at us common people (not to mention the environment); what mattered was their right to spray and mark their territory.

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Jordane Saget, Untitled.  Image copyright  Jordane Saget and courtesy Artists Ateliers of Belleville.

By contrast, Jordane Saget — one of the artists I’d encountered at the June 23 opening for the collaborative Brazilian – Bellevilloise Street Art exhibition running through July 10 at the gallery of the Artists Ateliers of Belleville at 1 rue Francis Picabia — seemed much more considerate of the public weal. First, Saget works primarily in chalk. Second, he candidly admitted that while this medium is erasable on sidewalks, it’s a bit more complicated to remove from walls. And then there’s the level of his art, which is as rigorous as it is simple. During the opening, while another group of artists was spray-painting a wall bordering the gallery and a third man was flaunting his barely-garbed stuff in high-heels, Saget, dressed in blue jeans and a tee-shirt, was humbly drawing on the sidewalk with a petite stub of white chalk.

paulSylvieLesgourguessmAnnie Barel (center) prepares a canvas while model Fernando Audmouc (right) primes for their collaboration and a blasé critic (left) contemplates the buffet table. See some of Barel’s published work here.

The high-heeled gangly drag queen/ performing/graffiti artist, Nina el Polin, who leaves his misspelled mark, “Nina Was Her” on and in buildings and above bath-tubs throughout Paris, seemed to have followed me to the next evening’s opening, of the group exhibition Petites Oeuvres Parisiennes at the collective gallery Le Genie de la Bastille, but it was in fact just a doppelganger, Fernando Audmouc, there to strip to his shorts and hang himself from a rafter so that Annie Barel could apply strips of black duct tape to his elongated tummy while an ’80s nouvelle vague version of “La Vie en Rose” played. Before this moment, I’d encountered, albeit second-hand, an artisan who has quietly been working at his oeuvre for 70 years:

“I was promenading on the rue Parmentier,” another artist recounted to me and photographer-filmmaker Alanig Keltz — as we stood before Keltz’s stark black and white photographs of a fog-shrouded Eiffel tower, a suburban suspended bridge or passerelle over the Seine, and a couple of teenagers walking down an overground railroad track that’s part of the abandoned, overgrown “Petite Ceinture” around Paris — “when I came across a window display full of broken dolls. When I started to photograph this, a wrinkled old man emerged from the store and explained that during the Occupation, he was walking down a road with his young daughter, fleeing Paris, when a German tank rolled over his little girl. The tank driver then backed up over her. Since then, the man has made his living repairing broken dolls.”

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Alanig Keltz,”Errance.” (Taken along the Petite Ceinture in Paris.)  Image copyright and courtesy Alanig Keltz. See more of the artist’s work on his website.

This reminded me of the experience recounted by Pierre, an eighty-something neighbor in the Dordogne, which I then shared with the two artists. At the end of the war, a German regiment was on its way to back up besieged colleagues in La Rochelle. Their intention was to by-pass our village, but a group of young maquisards had other plans, ‘going to the encounter” of the SS troops. Hunkering down, the Germans started firing at everything and everyone in site. Pierre’s 14-year-old brother — he was 12 — wanted to show him a bird’s nest another brother had made in the woods. They’d not gone 100 yards when a bullet struck down his brother, and another whizzed by Pierre’s ear. “The bullet that killed my brother was fired from one kilometer away.” It may have been mortal, but it was impersonal. “That’s horrible,” said one of the artists after I’d finished. “Horrible yes,” I said, “but I think there’s also beauty there: That in the midst of a war, beholding a bit of wonder, a bird’s nest, was still important to these boys.”

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Alanig Keltz,”ParisBrûmetil?”   Image copyright and courtesy Alanig Keltz. See more of the artist’s work on his website.

I think we’re living a similar moment right now in France, at its most morose (on a societal level; it’s not like you encounter frowns everywhere you go) in the 15 years I’ve been spending time here. (Although it should be added that the ambiance in Paris is more morose than in the countryside.) On top of the usual reasons — labor and political strife — there are the lingering shadows of the 13 November massacres, the obsession with Muslims and Islam that followed them,  and the epuissement of over-worked police. Police who have been understandably upset at a much more objectionable — and local government-sponsored — piece of graffiti which recently went up on public property in Grenoble, showing police beating “Marianne,” the national symbol, with clubs. The usual freedom of speech defense was trotted out by the Left-leaning municipal government, but do a few cases of police over-reaction really justify denigrating all of these men and women at a time when they’re working over-time without relief and bearing the brunt of the security burden? (And unlike just about everyone else, they’ve only held one demonstration… during which hoodlums burned one of their vehicles.)

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Pierre Millotte, “Claude C., 1963…” Acrylic on canvas sur médium, 135 x 75 cm. Artist comment: “From the experience of  ‘Calendriers,’ preserve the geographic color code, but change the gradation: and not represent a year, but an entire life. Thus the tableaux take on, by their scale, the age of the person and reveal changing residences and other movements of life.” Critic’s  comment: Not quite as abstract, in my view, as it first appears; coupled with Millotte’s booklet “Claude C, 1963” (see below), the artwork could be seen as a sort of crosstown cityscape  of Manhattan, as seen from above. Copyright and courtesy Pierre Millotte.

The cure, obviously, is not to attack the defenders, however imperfect they may be, but to find the bright, even humorous points even in dark times. Pierre Millotte, another artist featured in the Petites Oeuvres Parisiennes, provided a portal of light here. In one of a series of miniature book-lets, he relates the Adventures in Roommates of “Claude C” in the New York of the late ’80s as well as Paris. One of the tales Millotte recounts is of a psychotic far West Village roommate who, after telling him that Catherine Deneuve and Jean-Louis Tritignant have been killed in a tragic road accident, steals his ticket home. After “Claude C” has moved out, the ticket mysteriously shows up in an envelope addressed to him at the Washington Square Hotel, where he works. There are obviously two ways to see this story.

Which is yours? — Paul Ben-Itzak

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Life Goes on: Sylvie Lesgourgues, “Café Belleville, ‘Follies.'” Image copyright and courtesy Sylvie Lesgourgues. I met Sylvie Lesgourgues on November 12, 2015, during an opening for a group exhibition in a gallery not far from the Bataclan concert hall which would become a killing field 24 hours later.  Lesgourgues impressed me immediately as a politically engaged but also aesthetically meritorious artist, particularly with a panel of postage stamps featuring the visages of migrants — as if it would be so much easier if they could just mail themselves to their safe havens. When we re-connected recently, she told me that she was now also interested in simply conveying  that life goes on, that we still go out and gather together here in Paris.  This painting is part of the group expo Petites Oeuvres Parisiennes, discussed above, and which runs through July 3 at Le Genie de la Bastille. To see more work by Sylvie Lesgourgues, visit her website. — PB-I

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Like what you see? Become an Arts Voyager Sponsor for as little as $9.99/month. Your sponsor notice appears on our Home page and links to your own website.  Or contribute what you like. Just designate your PayPal payment to paulbenitzak[at]gmail[dot]com . Or contact us as the same e-mail address to find out more about sponsorship opportunities and other methods of payment in $ or Euros.  Merci!

Cowtown (Jazz and) Blues: In Texas, Robert Berry Persists in Painting Music

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Robert Berry, “Soul  of Jazz and Blues.” Acrylic and cerne relief outliner on canvas. 24 x 48 inches. Price: $750. Artist comment: “Created in 1999 on Gallery Wrap Canvas. Jazzed up in 2016.”  Image copyright and courtesy Robert Berry.

FORT WORTH, Texas — While picking yellow as the background for a painting may be an unusually bold choice, it’s an appropriate one for a visual artist whose subject is a musical art which is also constantly re-creating its own distinct environment: Jazz. But what makes Robert L. Berry and his JazzXpressionStudio unique in the landscape of local artists in this city whose promoters somewhat ambitiously refer to it as the capital of “Cowboys and Culture” is that his boldness is not confined to artistic choices, but extends to the business of art. After eight years of participating as a showcased artist in Arts Goggle, the business association Fort Worth South’s twice-yearly art crawl, Berry decided to up the ante in 2012 and rent a street-level boutique space in a mid-sized office building on the district’s marquee avenue, W. Magnolia, so that he could display and sell his work in the neighborhood year-round. On paper, it was a good idea. With its craftsmen homes quickly being bought up and gentrified, the Fairmount neighborhood anchored by Magnolia held the promise of being the nearest thing to a Bobo (Bourgeoisie Bohemian) wonderland in Texas this side of Austin. If Berry finally had to close up his boutique — he now opens his studio by appointment to those interested in his art and also sells directly from his online gallery — it was because the neighborhood was ultimately more bourgeoisie than Bohemian, its denizens not so interested in actually buying art. And Fort Worth’s haphazard public transportation system — the city council actually gave back $25 million in federal aid it had received for light-rail transport that would have made it easier to get to the cultural district and other outlying districts because its main business patron was worried it would draw tourists away from downtown — worked against making Fairmount and Magnolia a destination for outsiders.

But like any inspired artist, Robert Berry persists in creating despite the unencouraging local ambiance. (If Fort Worth may have recently been declared the fastest-growing city in the U.S., the city’s cultural budget continued to go downhill.) And ‘persists’ is the operative word: It’s one thing to create art in Paris or New York, where there’s no shortage of art fans and colleagues to train with, not to mention a real infrastructure of galleries and museums; it’s another thing to *continue* in a town which puts more value on dimestore cowboys than platinum artists. So we thought we’d check in with Robert Berry and share some of his work, classic and recent. You can see — and order — more on his website. — Paul Ben-Itzak (Originally published in 2012.)

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Robert Berry, “Ghosts of Jazz.” Acrylic and cerne relief outliner on canvas. 24 x 24  inches. Price: $550.  (Custom black frame included.) Image copyright and courtesy Robert Berry.

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Robert Berry, “Golden Jazz Trio.” Acrylic and cerne relief outliner on canvas. 20 x 20  inches. Price: $350.   Image copyright and courtesy Robert Berry.

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Robert Berry, “Coffee Jazz Break.” Acrylic and cerne relief outliner on fabric. 30 x 40 inches. Price: $1,000.  (Custom frame included.) Image copyright and courtesy Robert Berry.

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Robert Berry, “Jazzy Pianoxpression.” Acrylic and cerne relief outliner on canvas. 15 x 30 inches. Price: $450.  Artist comment: “Traditional canvas. Painted on all sides. No frame necessary.”  Image copyright and courtesy Robert Berry.

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Robert Berry, “Jazzy Drumbeat.” Acrylic and cerne relief outliner on gallery canvas. 30 x 30 inches. Price: $500.   Image copyright and courtesy Robert Berry.

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Robert Berry, “Jazz Blvd 2006.” Acrylic and cerne relief outliner on canvas. 20 x 24 inches. Not for sale.   Image copyright and courtesy Robert Berry.

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Robert Berry, “Martini Monday.” Acrylic and cerne relief outliner on canvas. 24 x 30 inches. Price: $550.   Image copyright and courtesy Robert Berry.

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Robert Berry, “Line Composition Connection.” Acrylic on canvas panel. 8 x 10  inches. Price: $80.  If Robert Berry has recently branched out from all that jazz, his work still retains the experimental essence of the musical form.  Image copyright and courtesy Robert Berry.

 

 

 

 

Pas si invisible que ca: Ellison & Parks, Harlem Reunion in Chicago

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Gordon Parks. Untitled, Harlem, New York, 1952. The Art Institute of Chicago, anonymous gift. Courtesy the Art Institute of Chicago.

What’s tragic about the ongoing shootings of African-Americans by some police and others — besides the deaths in and of themselves, and the recalcitrance of  congressmen bought off by the National Rifle Association to take firearms off the streets — is the ongoing separation from American society that this scourge signifies. Because lost in the lingering racism that still plagues the United States is that Black Lives not only “matter” but are integral to the American experience as a whole.

When I think about historical New York, more than any other neighborhood except perhaps the Village, I think of Harlem, and I think of Harlem in black and white. And I think of Gordon Parks — certainly a Black voice but an American voice tout court. And I also think of Ralph Ellison, whose 1952 novel “Invisible Man” helped uninvisibilize the Black Man in America.

What’s less known about this signature pair of American voices of the 20th century is that in 1948 and 1952, photographer-filmmaker-anthropologist Parks and novelist Ellison collaborated on two journalism projects. “Harlem is Nowhere,” published in ’48: The Magazine of the Year, focused on the uptown neighborhood’s Lafargue Mental Hygiene Clinic, as a prism for highlighting the social and economic effects of racism and segregation. “A Man Becomes Invisible,” published in 1952 by Life magazine, at that time the signature pictorial chronicle of America (and the world), featured Parks’s illustrations of scenes from Ellison’s “Invisible Man.” The first essay as lost, while only part of the second ultimately was published.

Now a new exhibition running at the Art Institute of Chicago through August 28 re-unites the surviving texts and images from the two projects, including never-before-seen photographs by Parks from the museum’s collection and the Gordon Parks Foundation, and unpublished manuscripts by Ellison. Together, they not only represent African-American life at its nerve center, but as a luminous part of the American spectrum of the epoch. — Paul Ben-Itzak

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Gordon Parks. Harlem Neighborhood, Harlem, New York, 1952. The Gordon Parks Foundation. Courtesy the Art Institute of Chicago.

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Gordon Parks. Untitled, Harlem, New York, 1952. The Gordon Parks Foundation. Courtesy the Art Institute of Chicago.

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Gordon Parks. Off On My Own, Harlem, New York, 1948. The Gordon Parks Foundation. Courtesy the Art Institute of Chicago.

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Ralph Ellison. Notes for “Invisible Man,” 1947. The Gordon Parks Foundation. Courtesy the Art Institute of Chicago.

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Gordon Parks. Soapbox Operator, Harlem, New York, 1952. The Gordon Parks Foundation. Courtesy the Art Institute of Chicago.

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Gordon Parks. Contact Sheet, “A Man Becomes Invisible,” Life story no. 36997, 1952. The Gordon Parks Foundation. Courtesy the Art Institute of Chicago.

The chouetitude of Desuetitude: Lost in time in the Plains of the Pré Saint-Gervais

gervaisclairesantotTaken with a Holga box camera and shared at the recent Portes Ouvertes of the Pré Saint-Gervais on the frontiere of Paris, Claire Santrot’s photograph, above, recalls the portraits of Roman Vishniac and Andre Kertesz. Courtesy and copyright Claire Santrot.

LE PRE SAINT-GERVAIS (Seine-St.-Denis), France — When I was 12 or 13, my parents split up and my two younger brothers and I started spending half the week in my dad’s architecture studio in San Francisco’s Mission District, a converted candy store – soda fountain – pharmacy. Autrement dit, un loft avant son temps. We were always finding turn of the 19th-20th century victual bottles in the overgrown garden. The place, on Guerrero Street — next door to the childhood home of Timothy Pflueger, a pioneering architect who designed many of the city’s art deco movie palaces and downtown landmarks — had a corrugated tin ceiling that my father painted pea green. He divided the house with a wall on the other side of which my brothers and I initially shared a tiny loft, before that part of the house was divided into three bedrooms. It was about this time that I started getting nostalgic — for the jazz and cinema of the 1930s and ’40s, with my step-mother turning me on to KMPX, a former hippy radio station that had converted to big band music. Later, when I was living in the back part of the building as an adult with my dad using the front for a studio, my neighbor, a New Yorker named Sy who drove a taxi for a living but had also DJ’d and whose one-eyed albino cat Bowie used to scramble with my part-husky feline Mesha, showed me the stash of a dozen old radio consoles the electronics guy on the street had bequeathed to him before walking off into the Sunset (district, perpetually shrouded in fog). The jewel of the collection was a compact system which had both a built in tape-deck and a turntable that could play 78s, which Sy leant me so I could record my godmother Annette’s old Andrews Sisters, Mickey Katz, Jascha Heifitz, and even one mammoth Caruso disk from 1906 (“La Juife”). Up until last Sunday, Sy’s collection comprised the most antique radios I’d ever seen in one place.

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Jean-Marc Franchini’s acrylic and silk paper portrait of Woodie Guthrie. A legal suit was recently brought in the United States to wrest Guthrie’s unofficial National Anthem, “This Land is Your Land,” from the corporation which currently owns the rights and release it to the public domain.  Copyright and courtesy Jean-Marc Franchini.

Thus it was that entering Jean-Marc Franchini’s studio-atelier-flat-museum-discotheque on June 19, to kick off my second day making the tour of the Portes Ouvertes (open studios) of the Paris frontier town Le Pré Saint-Gervais, I found myself stepping into a double time warp, back in Sy’s Guerrero Street apartment in the 1990s and in the home/studio of an avid music fanatic of the early 1960s. Even Franchini’s lanky size and close-cropped ‘do with an Alfalfa wave on top is consistent with the decor: He could be the gas station attendant behind the guitar player somewhere on Route 66 behind whom hides a green Elvis (“Because he’s dead,” explains Franchini) in one of his paintings. Then there’s the half-circle independent bar-counter island, the sofa and matching (or close enough) lounge chairs with independent cushions, and the groovy shellack coffee table. About the only thing that’s (relatively) modern is the stereo complex above six or seven shelves of densely packed records, the more vintage radios and record-players-in-a-valise that line the elevated salon being a mix of the functional and the simply decorous. “I just haven’t yet figured out how to connect the two record players to the receiver,” Franchini explained. If he can’t get any of the record players to work, the many blues and big band figures peopling his tableaux — some created with China Ink, some simply oils, the most remarkable and tactile being those made of a combination of silk paper and acrylic — might just  step out of the frames and start jamming. As is often the case in France, Franchini’s heard of ’50s era American musicians obscure to me (Skip James), but even his portrayals of more familiar figures — Billie Holiday, surrounded by her band in an intimate club setting, or Woody Guthrie with a guitar on which he’s written “This guitar kills fascists” — manage for the most part to avoid the clichés.

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The bluesman Lonnie Johnson, and friend, captured by Jean-Marc Franchini in acrylic and silk paper.  Copyright and courtesy Jean-Marc Franchini.

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Jean-Marc Franchini’s China ink portrait of Billie Holiday and friends.  Copyright and courtesy Jean-Marc Franchini.

It’s not just the interior design of Franchini’s apartment-studio that is one of the most period-consistent settings I’ve ever seen. (And having spent three years living in Fort Worth, Texas, I know something about desuetitude.) Saint-Gervais itself could have been transported in a time capsule directly from the late 1950s or early 1960s. Thus it is that even stepping out of Franchini’s apartment building, onto a somewhat dilapidated street with low-story dwellings and an abandoned lot overgrown with weeds across the way, rather than being jerked back to the present, you simply continue your stroll expecting to find more of the same….as did I, Sunday, in the “Atelier Monsieur Madame.” (Madame has so far resisted my requests to provide the full names of herself and the brother with whom she started the business several years ago, after taking a formation as a cabinet-maker, a not so dramatic shift from her ophthalmologist career as you might think, given the eye for detail of “Veronique,” the most I could extract from her. To the familial enterprise “Monsieur” brought many years of scouring the antique markets and “vide greniers” (like neighborhood-wide garage sales; vide = empty, greniers = attics) for beat up relics of the 1940s through ’70s. (The same terrain where Franchini finds his furnishings; if they ever need touching up, help is right around the corner.) From restorations, the pair has moved on to actually recreating period furniture from scrap. Among the technical challenges they face is finding… formica. French formica is apparently not as sturdy as its American counter-part, and, “Madame” told me, the best way to fix up the tarnished surface of an armoire door, for example, is often by cannibalizing the material from somewhere else in the same armoire.

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Old made new again: Outside the Atelier Monsieur Madame. The furniture, like the garden/yard, is authentic, refurbished from the 1940s through ’70s  or (front left) created from scratch in the same style. Image copyright and courtesy Atelier Monsieur Madame.

Right now, it seems like the next step for Madame et Monsieur may be making the backyard presence of their workshop more apparent from the front entrance of the apartment building in which its located. And to further demonstrate how ideally suited Le Pré Saint-Gervais is to retro environments and retro-retouching, when I entered the yard onto which their atelier opens up and pointed to a couple of lawn-chair and table relics, and even a rocking-horse grazing and asked, “Your work?” Madame smiled faintly at my attempted cleverness and answered. “Nope. The neighbor’s furniture.”

At this point, I decided it was time to move from the obsolete (the closest English translation to ‘desuet,’ though I’ve also seen “quaint”) to the obscure and hied over to the atelier of Monique Mathey, who had constructed a camera obscura d’occasion using only a cardboard box, a hole puncher, and a piece of aluminum. After marvelling over the work of Claire Santrot in the same atelier, particularly a series on hands covering one wall and a number of photos taken with the Holga box camera made popular by the lomography movement, I wandered over to the territory of the obscura.

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A critique with a 360-degree pinhole view of reality: Your not so humble servant, captured by Antonia Machayekhi. (As headware, Monsieur sports the latest in homemade cameras obscuras.) Photo copyright and courtesy Antonia Machayekhi. (Click here to see Machayekhi’s portraits of Cabu and others; and here for her reportage on the harpsichord maker Claude Mercier.

After about my fifth time asking Mathey to explain how her homemade camera obscura worked, she suggested, “Try it out for yourself,” and plopped the box over my head, leaving me barely enough time to remove my urban cowboy’s Stetson. Et voila le tenue qu’il faut pour un critique qui voir que l’obscure. — Paul Ben-Itzak

For more on the Portes Ouvertes of the Pré Saint-Gervais, see our Arts Voyager portfolio of Valeria Aussibal.