latest reviews and articles

Intimations of Medieval Mortality

30 June – 1 July 2018 ~ Wall Street Journal

Screen Shot 2018-06-30 at 3.38.38 PMSometime in the mid-1440s, an as yet unidentified artist filled a wall at the entrance to Palermo’s first municipal hospital with a 19½-by-21-foot painting designed to scare people to death—and into the arms of the Church. Today, housed in the city’s Sicilian Regional Art Gallery, this interpretation of the “Triumph of Death” roots you to the spot with its masterly composition and complex, hard-hitting message.

Filling the center of an almost perfect square, a large horse lunges left to right, its bony haunches, washboard ribs and skull-like head reminiscent of the horse in Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica,” which some art historians speculate this depiction inspired. But this horse is devoid of emotion: Its eye sockets empty, its body cadaverous and colorless, it charges, implacable, into the mortal world. Sitting astride is an ash-colored skeleton, a thick loop of fabric lashing a scythe to its waist.  (link to essay)

Stories Told in All Their Splendor

27 June 2018 ~ Wall Street Journal
Asavani Ragini of Sri
“Asavani Ragini of Sri” painted in Malwa c. 1650

Back in 1990, the San Diego Museum of Art received more than 1,400 works representing just about every school, region and style of South Asian painting. Bequeathed by Edward Binney 3rd, heir to the Crayola fortune, it is one of the best collections of its kind outside India. Currently, a selection of some 90 works from the late 16th through 19th centuries illustrates stories from literature, poetry and oral traditions while at the same time showcasing the variety within South Asia’s painting tradition. Together, the show and catalog of “Epic Tales From Ancient India” provide an education and a visual journey that takes us from rambunctious battles against enemies human and demonic to quiet, tender love scenes; from intrigues and trickery to imaginative renderings of divine interventions in worldly affairs. A case in point: To show how gods helped a king bear sons, an artist working in a North Indian court around 1770 depicted a miracle in the “Ramayana” most imaginatively. Priest to the left, king to the right, and, between them, only half embodied within the flames of a ritual fire, a clone of the priest proffers a dish of magical, son-producing food. (link to review)

Elegance that Encourages Laughter

4 June 2018 ~ Wall Street Journal
Shunso Soshu’s ‘Demon Meditating’
Shunso Soshu’s ‘Demon Meditating’ (Photo: Taylor Dabney/University of Richmond Museums)

Thick black lines mark the contours of an elephant depicted head-on, its legs merging into a single, columnar mass fringed with a curlicue of toes, its body so large only a sliver fits inside the painting. Ito Jakuchu’s 1795 “Elephant” is at once imposing and cute, one of many of the 48 ink paintings in “Unexpected Smiles: Seven Types of Humor in Japanese Paintings” with a high “Aw!” factor. That is a good thing. Humor and entertainment depend greatly on a body of shared knowledge and references, and the labels can better work their magic when playful visuals have already hooked us.  (link to review)

A Giant Leap

26 April 2018 ~ Wall Street Journal
detail of Portrait of Priest Nichiyo by Tohaku under name of Nobuharu (1572)

‘A Giant Leap: The Transformation of Hasegawa Tohaku” is a small, entrancing show, the first in the U.S. dedicated to a 16th-century artist widely considered one of Japan’s greatest and most versatile painters. But anyone expecting a grand retrospective will be disappointed. This is an introspective show that immerses us in select masterpieces while piercing the mystery that has shrouded their maker.

Because of restrictions on loans from Japanese temples and museums, the Japan Society Gallery split the show into two rotations, the second of which is now on view. It showcases a pair of colorful flower-and-bird paintings and three compositions painted on gilded screens—held over from the first rotation—along with two portraits, and large-scale ink paintings that fill two pairs of six-paneled screens. (link to review) 

detail of Willows in Four Seasons by Tohaku (late 16th C)
detail of Cranes in Bamboo Grove by Tohaku (16thC)


The Art Bridge

March-April 2018 ~ Aramco World magazine

Whether it is to learn, laugh or be challenged, to share discovery or wonder, art brings people together. And whether by stimulating appreciation or controversy, art helps people understand each other. This sounds straightforward enough, but is it true? Does art really do this and, if so, how? Those were my questions as I set out to write about the Building Bridges Program, which since 2007 has backed arts initiatives in the us through a total of 138 grants, all of them focused on Arab and Islamic cultures.
. . .

Art connects people because “art opens us up,” says Zeyba Rahman, senior program officer for Building Bridges. “Makes us consider and reconsider positions. Provokes us to think more deeply.”

Screen Shot 2018-03-19 at 1.33.44 PMRahman unabashedly aims to “move the needle for people.” The problem, she acknowledges, is that nobody has devised a foolproof way to identify, much less quantify, just what makes us change our mind about others. Researchers can measure changes in people’s intrinsic biases, but they don’t agree on which tools to use. It is also hard to tease out the active ingredients in a program and correlate these to outcomes. Ask anyone who has filled out a grant request. They sigh. They often have more anecdotes than data. They know things in their gut but can’t prove them.

So what is it they think they know? How does art change us? I set out to find out by taking a close look at four Building Bridges-supported programs, each centered on a different approach: play, laughter, visual appeal and performance.  (here’s the link to what I found)

Screen Shot 2018-03-19 at 1.33.27 PM
First Stop: “America to Zanzibar: Muslim Cultures Near and Far” at the Children’s Museum of Manhattan.  Read more here about this and three other projects I dive into.



2 thoughts on “latest reviews and articles

  1. For some reason I always found myself hanging out with minority students as an undergraduate. In the sixties there was not a lot of integration on the Lutheran college campuses Iattended and being a bit of an outcast myself I identified to a small degree with their apparent anxiety over the problems of assimilation on a white campus. The programs you wrote about would have made an incredible difference in their lives, I’m sure. When I was a graduate student, however, I noticed that one possible effect of a growing population of minorities in college in many courses was a “watering-down” of the material being taught. Those courses that retained a high level of academic expectation were deserted quickly by students who dropped out of such classes in droves. When I returned to school later to earn a secondary degree I found many such classes apparently eliminated from the course options altogether. I am sure that there were many factors behind these changes besides the changes in the student population, but I can not help but think from my personal experiences that our general curriculum might be slowly watered down to ensure student success. Western literature and culture seems to be slipping away, in my opinion, at an alarming rate. I fully acknowledge the need for all people of every ethnic heritage to receive a college education, Indeed, our nation depends on it.. I am also aware of the personal struggles that may plague students from different socio-economic backgrounds and applaud the steps being made to help them succeed in college programs. I also pray that our schools do not become mere training centers for specialized careers and that the liberal arts are not totally eliminated from college and university curriculums in order to made the road to a degree a little smoother for students who for various reasons are not sufficiently prepared academically to meet the abstract thinking skills such courses may require.

    1. Your concerns are shared by many and most valid. By all accounts, in Prof Hogan’s biology classs (the opening example I give in the piece) , the material stayed exactly the same; all that the professor changed were her teaching methods. It is of course easier to test for this in the sciences than it is for liberal arts classes where the quality of essays and discussions (breadth of knowledge, critical analysis, etc) is key. I am interested in seeing what a current study headed by Howard Gardner reveals about Liberal Arts programs (

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