Susan Morris | Reviews

DOC NYC: Art + Illness

DOC NYC featured films about making art.

Was winning the 1964 Venice Biennale Grand Prize rigged? So asks Taking Venice, Amei Wallach’s film about Robert Rauschenberg’s victory. Was it the handiwork of the curator of the U.S. Pavilion, Alan Solomon, gallerist Leo Castelli and Washington insider Alice Denney who mobilized the weight of the U.S. during the height of the Cold War when culture was being used as a weapon? Rauschenberg was a lesser known artist at the time, whose work incorporating street detritus and pop culture imagery was still in question. The machinations at the “Olympics of art” make for a fascinating caper.  

The Promise of Spring shines a light on the work of Sarah Oliphant, an artist whose work you have probably seen without realizing it. In a large, sunny Brooklyn studio, she creates the scenic, hand-painted backdrops for photo shoots that are used by such photographers as Annie Leibovitz, Steven Meisel, and Patrick Demarchelier seen in many publications like Vanity Fair, Hollywood Reporter and Vogue and on Broadway and on screens including HBO, and Saturday Night Live. "[I’m] not the it, [I'm] the behind the it,” says Oliphant.

Jamie Diaz is Mexican-American transgender woman who in 1996 was sentenced to life in a Texas men’s prison for aggravated robbery. In Love, Jamie we see the colorful, graphic  artwork she creates with limited art supplies and her own hair.  Since 2013 she has communicated with Gabriel Joffe, who works with incarcerated LGBTQ+ people, and who arranges an art exhibition in a NY gallery of Jamie’s work, including portraits of him. She’s up for parole in 2025 and showing her artworks is an argument for her viability on the outside.

In Forbidden Pond, Deb Kapell, Director of the Bureau of Communicable Diseases at NYC Department of Health, mounts her camera to a microscope and explores puddle samples across NYC to make exquisite pictures of microscopic life.  

Who’s Behind Black Art is a four-part TV series on five young emerging Black North American artists: Mario Joyce, Jewel Ham, Tae Ham, Laurena Fineus and Adrian Armstrong.  The episodes are titled “Who We Are,” “Black Women & the Arts Ecosystem,” “Preservation of Black Art” and “My People.”

Using drawing as a weapon, young Mexican illustrator Maremoto (Mar) shares her illustrations online to call attention to femicides and abductions in her country in We Are Fire (Draw for Change). With more than 10 females murdered daily, and 95,000 missing, she galvanizes a traumatized community, questioning the macho culture. “They wanted to bury us, but they did not know we were seeds,” Mar says about her artistic revolution to mobilize the government to act.  

Neirud is filmmaker and Hunter College professor Fernanda Roth Faya’s “aunt,” a close friend of her grandmother’s. This is a detective story to uncover her unexpected life in Brazil as a circus performer, wrestler, and her actress grandmother’s lover.

Ghanaian filmmaker and engineer Arthur Musah ("Naija Beta" [2016] about Nigerian MIT undergrads launching a robotics summer camp for high-schoolers in Lagos) came to the U.S. to attend MIT graduating in 2004. Adapting to America and asking such questions as “How does a new world become home? How does a Black African become aware of racism in America? How does one’s identity shift and how do different people weigh living for their community’s expectations versus their own desires?” applied to him, as well as the young people from Africa who he follows. In Brief, Tender Light. He follows four students from Nigeria, Rwanda, Tanzania and Zimbabwe over ten years.

German-born NYC-based cinematographer Martina Radwan shot orphaned Mongolian street kids and got hooked. She decided she could make a difference in the lives of three of the children, Baaskaa, Baani, and Nassa in Tomorrow, Tomorrow, Tomorrow.  Understanding their needs and dreams, rather than her aspirations factor in trying to help them escape their dismal prospects, while her own family abandonment comes to light.  

DOC NYC also showed films on art intersecting with illness.

Angel Applicant is the story of Ken August Meyer, an art director at Wieden + Kennedy ad agency until he became afflicted with scleroderma, an autoimmune disease that causes inflammation of the skin and severely limits mobility. He discovers that artist Paul Klee (1879 – 1940) suffered from the same affliction. Klee, a Swiss-German painter known as the “Bauhaus Buddha” after he started teaching at the art school in Weimar, Germany, fled back to Switzerland when the Nazis rose to power in 1933. As the disease set in, his artwork “became increasingly geometric and began employing heavier lines and larger blocks of color.” Always sly and humorous, his work spoke to Meyer, who considers Klee’s works “consolation from an empathetic ghost.” He says "It was not my intention to make myself the subject of a film… However, it occurred somewhat naturally when reading about Paul Klee’s own struggle with the disease, that I began to feel a deep connection to his expressive last works.…Within various biographies and the entire catalog of his life’s work, I was able to chronologically track along with his themes and titles, a familiar sense of melancholy coupled with humor and optimism.“

American Symphony tracks a tumultuous year in musician Jon Batiste’s life from the highs of his 11 Grammy nominations (5 wins) to the lows of his best-selling author wife, Suleika Jaouad's recurrence of leukemia after a ten year absence. What was originally meant to be tracking the development of his musical composition, also titled American Symphony, from its inception to premiere at Carnegie Hall, instead turned into an intimate, relentless chronicling of his upending 2021.  

Films Mentioned:
Angel Applicant, directed by Ken August Meyer
Amiercan Symphony, directed by Matt Heineman
Taking Venice, directed by Amei Wallach
The Promise of Spring, directed by Anna Andersen
Love, Jamie, directed by Karla Murthy
Forbidden Pond, directed by Eric Jenkins-Sahlin
Who’s Behind Black Art, directed by John Campbell
We Are Fire! (Draw For Change), directed by Karen Vázquez Guadarrama
Neirud, directed by Fernanda Roth Faya
Brief, Tender Light, directed by Arthur Musah
Tomorrow, Tomorrow, Tomorrow, directed by Martina Radwan

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Media

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