CUNY Macaulay Honors College at Baruch College/Professor Bernstein
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Category — Critics’ Corner

The Bitter Sea

The elements of Charles Li’s The Bitter Sea gave me a different perspective on daily life in a Chinese household. Growing up Chinese, I have had a different experience with filial piety in the sense that my parents, especially my father, cared more about me emotionally and cared for my successes academically. I do however sympathize with Li’s relationship with his father, as this relationship ended up defining his life. I feel that The Bitter Sea is a highly compelling story of a young man’s life facing and experiencing all sorts of extremes. He lived a life of luxury in his early years, and had everything taken from him when he moved to the slums of Nanjing. This dramatic shift in conditions should break a man, but for Charles Li, it was actually a transition that shaped part of his character.

One major theme is abandonment. Throughout his young life, he had a Nai Ma, or milk mother, who took good care of him and truly loved him. Then suddenly she was taken away from him. This abandonment by the Nai Ma put Charles Li into a deep depression as he wondered why she was taken away. Later on, Li had a best friend, Da Ge, who he did everything with until one day he just left. This provided more sorrow and loneliness as he questioned the unfortunate events that happened to him.

December 14, 2010   No Comments

Medea: Simplicity, That Was All It Took.

There is the word that we often forget in our busy lives: “simplicity.” Overwhelmed by day-to-day technological and cultural changes, we continuously look for something new and flashy. We are so used to watching the enormous, delicate stage on the Broadway show and actors and actresses in stunning outfits. However, Medea reading directed by Mahayana Landowne at the Baruch Performing Arts Center on October 4th, 2010 made me to realize that the real potential of a performing art is not limited to the materials on the stage. By minimizing the stage devices and outfits, the performance proved that nothing else could outreach the potential of the performers.

Medea is an ancient play written by Euripides in the 3rd century B.C. It contains a deep depth of emotions of agony, betrayal and revenge. When I first heard that we were going to attend the reading, I was concerned. Without any stage devices or the appropriate costumes to imply the setting and time, how are they going to embody Medea from the Ancient Greece?  However, as soon as the actual reading started by Kathleen Turco-Lyon’s calm voice who played the nurse, I put aside all my concerns. I was instantly drawn into the passionate reading of the actors and actresses. Especially whenever the actress Denise Ann Pelletier, who played a role of Medea grasped the attention from the audience through her passionate acting. Every little aspect of her voice, gaze and even hand gestures, all became Medea herself. With her bare feet, she led herself and all of us into the real world of drama. Through I learned the beauty of simplicity.

December 13, 2010   No Comments

Art at MoMa: Ambiguous, Abstract and Atypical

I am usually a grumpy country girl. Every morning, I start my day with pouring complaints and sighs when I have to throw myself into a packed F train. One thing that I appreciate in my life of a city dweller is having an access to the cultural enrichment. Overflowing with museums, galleries and performance halls, New York City is all about the culture. Amongst all the powerhouses of inspiration, there is one place that I actually love the most. At the Museum of Modern Art, you are not allowed to perceive the paintings as they are. Instead, you find a thought, an insight, and inspiration of different artists. Before I entered MoMa, my eyes sparkled with curiosity. What would inspire me today? I always ask myself the same question, but each time MoMa provides me with a different answer. When I attentively and creatively examined the works from the exhibition “Abstract Expressionist New York,” three words came to my mind for deriving my own definition of Art: Ambiguous, Abstract, and Atypical.

<1951. Enamel paint on canvas, 7′ 7 7/8″ x 7′ 2″ (233.4 x 218.4 cm). Acquired through the Lillie P. Bliss Bequest and the Mr. and Mrs. David Rockefeller Fund. © 2010 Pollock-Krasner Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York>

Art is Ambiguous: Abstract art finds its values from ambiguity. Among the paintings, today’s exhibition could be summarized by “rediscovery of Jackson Pollock.” Jackson Pollock was an American painter who significantly influenced other abstract artists by developing the action painting method for the first time. This was just general information that I had about him. I knew about his style of spraying the paints all over the canvas creating undefined figures, but I couldn’t appreciate his artwork before. I secretly grumbled whenever I passed by his paintings, “Hey, I did the same thing when I was in 4th grade art class!”

Nonetheless, something has changed this time. I could not arrogantly walk away from his painting. The one that stroke me the most was “Echo: Number 25, 1951.” I never knew Pollock’s painting blobs had this deep sensation in them. As if I were seeing a vibrant herd of horses on some oriental painting, all the ambiguous figures were weaved together and emitted a powerful energy. From his painting, I was able to find the first, simple definition of art: it is a process of creating something from nothing.

<1941-44. Oil on canvas, 27 1/4 x 17 1/8″ (69.2 x 43.5 cm). Gift of Renate Ponsold Motherwell>

Art is Abstract: Abstractism prevents us from judging the values of the artwork. The one aspect that I really love about abstract art is that there is no right or wrong answer for your own interpretation of the work. Most of them do not even have a title. For the ones that actually have a title, I tend check the title at the last minute: by doing so, I can freely think and interpret the artwork through my own lens. When I was looking at Robert Motherwell’s “The Little Spanish Prison,” I didn’t look at the credit to check the title. Somehow, the painting’s yellow and white stripes with one accentuated pink vertical block on the bottom reminded me of a prison cell. After checking the title, I was very happy. It wasn’t simply because I made the correct guess; but, I was able to connect my thoughts with the artist and communicate with him through his painting.

<1950. Egg tempera and enamel on canvas, 8′ 1/8″ x 8′ 9 1/2″ (244.1 x 268 cm). The Sidney and Harriet Janis Collection. © 2010 Barnett Newman Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York>

Art is Atypical: If we see an artwork like Barnett Newman’s “The Voice,” we arrogantly say, “A 4 year-old can even do this!” Yes, his painting is nothing but a giant white canvas with one indefinite line on the side. And yes, maybe a 4-year-old can imitate his painting after staring at it for 5 seconds. However, here is the real difference. You might have thought of the same idea, but you’re not the one who created this art. You are not the one who executed the same idea to share with other people. It seems very easy to be an artist, but certainly not everyone can become one. Whether the painting is consisted of seemingly meaningless colors, shapes and lines, its value for is in being someone’s exclusive idea that wasn’t originally expressed. A typical artist follows what other people think. However, an atypical artist listens to his own voice and expresses what he thinks.

I personally consider having a definite and unique style as the most significant trait of an artist. In that perspective, Pollock’s natural and vibrant flows of enamel painting on the white canvas reveal his creativity and philosophy as an artist. I also admire his audacity of executing his ideas even though knowing that people are going to insensitively degrade his or her artistic values for its simplicity and easiness. As I was approaching the newly derived definition of art, I became terribly lost. In art, there is no right or wrong answer. Each one of us has a different voice from one another, and we all have different perspective through our own lenses. I was able to make different approaches for deriving the new definition of art by encountering new inspirations from the exhibition “Abstract expressionist New York.” There is no one definition that can solely stand for defining art. When my opinion and the artist’s intention finds an intersection, that is the moment that art meets its fullest value.

December 13, 2010   No Comments

The Bistter Sea: Bitter-Sweet, Voyage.

One person lived a life which he would recall as “the Bitter Sea.” If we compare our lives as a voyage on the sea that would define ourselves of who we are and where we are heading toward, Charles N. Li’s voyage is made through consecutive strikes of Hurricanes. However, those hardships are hard to be compared with a natural disaster. Despite the situation that Li has to deal with, he is able to make decisions over his life. Both the environment and his own decision paves a way for him to achieve maturity as an adult.

Once growing up as a son of the wealthy Chinese government official, Li becomes a street kid in the slum unexpectedly. After spending a year at the foreigner’s camp in the Communist China, Li realizes he has been used by his ambitious father who aims to regain his political strength through his son. Bitter yet sweet, his life is a restless ride on a roller-coaster that does not have an apparent destination. This quaky departure is solely based on the rigid and disfigured relationship between his father and him. Filial piety’s influence in China is beyond its meaning of philosophy. In this father and son relationship, there are no exchanges of affectionate words or eye-contacts. As if they have made a contract, Li and his father simply acting out their own roles. Li takes a role as an obedient, diligent and smart student, and his father as a provider of food and shelter.

Throughout his life, all Li wants to earn from his father is freedom. Li recalls that his years spending in the slum are the most delightful and unforgettable memory of all times.

Later on, Li’s encounter to Communist China’s restrictive atmosphere of controlling ideas elevates his inner conflict of raising his self-consciousness. At the end, he is able to step out of his father’s shadow and face the world by himself.

The pivotal moment for Li turning into adulthood is when he comes back from the Communist China and decides to be independent from his father. He financially, physically and mentally detaches himself from his father’s influence. As he prepares himself for another enormous transition in life of studying abroad in the United States, Li is able to understand his father for the first time and finally forgives him. He even embraces his father’s never-ending political ambition. Li decides to mend his disrupted relationship with his father at the beginning of his new life.

I do not believe Li’s present self is drastically influenced by either Chinese culture or Communism. Every person bears his or her own burden of life. Through challenges, a person is simply learning how to move from the past or flow with it. Nonetheless, I greatly appreciate Li’s story because he is volunteering to be a role model who assiduously and audaciously steps forward to face destiny and eventually, finds himself.

December 11, 2010   1 Comment

The Scottsboro Boys: You Can’t Do Me.

A dim orange light directly projected the hidden heroes of the Broadway musical The Scottsboro Boys in the dark Lyceum Theatre. Several metallic chairs were bunched up on the empty stage as if they were implying the musical’s complicated dilemma of maintaining balance between depicting the gravity of a historical event and presenting entertainment to the audience. The illumination of the legs got dimmer as the light gradually faded away. Soon the entire stage was filled with all the miscellaneous noises of the city. When the light was finally restored, the audience was introduced to a crucial, but mysterious heroine of the musical. One African American lady in an ivory dress and heavy trench coat sat on one of the chairs. With this anonymous woman’s blank gaze at the audience, the Scottsboro boys finally drew their heavy curtains.

The Scottsboro Boys is a musical based on a historical incident that was taken place in 1931. Nine African American teenagers, who were traveling the northeast part of Alabama, were wrongly accused of raping two white women. Just like most of the audience there, I initially misread the synopsis and presumed that this musical’s potential was locked in the heavy atmosphere of depicting racism and clashes between different social classes in the 1930s. As the storyline progressed, however, I found that my initial assumption was wrong. The musical’s potential was not limited. The musical did stop at simply narrating the historical context on behalf of the innocent victims of the social prejudices. Similar to what the Scottsboro boys sang their song “Shout,” this musical was an astonishing debut of all the muted, forgotten, and ignored neighbors of our society.

The musical was able to project the voice clearly by minimizing the number of stage devices and allowed the audience to focus on the characters and the storyline from other visual factors. By doing so, it was able to make the audience to perceive the metaphorical meaning of the scenes better. The several metallic chairs and three giant frames were the only stage devices that were used in the musical. The scene after another, the chairs were bunched up and became a train, a prison cell, and often simply served their original role, chairs. The cell created by chair legs implied unfair treatment of the society toward the innocent boys behind the iron bars. Meanwhile, the huge frames on the back of the stage indicated the society’s paradox for its careless judgment of individuals according to its own biased standard. Also, it served as a metaphor for our cognitive rulers that we use everyday to measure others’ worth.

Even though the songs were encoded in lively beats and sung by performers with energetic choreography, the musical successfully maintained its sharp satire on the social prejudices against the African Americans. The best moment of this performance came at last when all the boys sang “The Scottsboro Boys” together in unison. Their faces were entirely colored in black except for their mouths. Everyone, whether they were freed from the wrong accusation or got executed, came together in one voice. In the middle of the song, the freed boys came up to the front and explained what happened to their lives afterward. Even though they could run away from the instant accusation of a false crime, most of them could not successfully merged back into the society.  In this scene, I was able to redefine my own definition of freedom: the society itself was the actual life-long imprisonment for the boys.

The Scottsboro Boys examined the significance of spirit of civil disobedience in our society. History is written in favor of who play by the rules. In that perspective, Haywood was the loser: he was the only person who refused to admit his false charge and chose death rather than pleading for life. However, the real irony in the musical is that the concept of power was interpreted differently. This time, or at least this musical was in favor of the losers and strived to retrieve their lost voices. Haywood himself became a resonating evidence of injustice by refusing to obey a false order.

Besides portraying the serious consequences of racism in the 30s, the musical also depicted discrimination against other social groups. The lady who first appeared on the stage did not speak any word throughout the musical. She either sat or stood in the corner of the stage as if she did not belong to anywhere. No one noticed her presence. When she knelt down to check if Haywood was okay after being forcefully pushed away by the prosecutor, Haywood waved her off. In the last scene, she sat on a chair in the dark all by herself again. A white driver demanded her to give up her sit.  “No,” she spoke for the first time, “No, I don’t want to move.” Setting up the “speechless woman” as Rosa Park was slightly too dramatic and easily predictable to some extent. Nonetheless, this predictable ending was powerful enough to recap and collect all the ambivalent emotions toward the incident.

Through the upbeat flow of rich jazz melody in “Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey!” and Haywood’s deep voice in his solo “You Can’t Do Me,” the Scottsboro Boys presented a full package of different performance arts. Each character’s voice was unique, yet blended perfectly into unison.  After the curtain fell back again, I found myself remaining in my seat asking myself different questions. What freedom really means to me? Am I free in my world? What is justice? I couldn’t answer any of the questions out of my head. However, I suddenly realized how heavy the weight of freedom is that I carry all the time.

Image was taken from <,r:4,s:0&biw=1276&bih=624>

December 11, 2010   No Comments


I had been to the MoMa once before, I remember, vaguely. I must have been young because I could hardly recognize it. When I walked through the exhibits, it all seemed so enchanting. Granted, some were a little too abstract for my taste. But others seemed so inventive and thought provoking, so I wrote a few down.

One specific artist written on the top of my list was Barnett Newman. Newman’s work stirred up conversations. Most around me were unappreciative, and just saw a line. At first, I did too. But lines are not just lines when they are exhibited at the MoMa, so I decided to take a look. Apparently, the idea behind Mr. Newman’s collection was to convey a sense of separateness, while being completely connected. It is a message of the human race, and how disconnected we all feel but in reality, we are all together. After reading that, it was much more than just a straight line. Modern art, I believe, is really just the manifestation of a concept. Instead of creating an aesthetic, it focuses more on an idea than the final product. A line isn’t exactly a work of art, unless the line represents an idea.

I see where some people may lose appreciation here. But there is something to say about the concepts behind some of the pieces I saw at the museum.

Robert Frank’s exhibit interested me as well. Frank was a photographer in the 1930s whose work in black and white film “stood out” to say the least. I shuffled through a book of his prints, some of which were enlarged on the adjacent wall. They were beautiful, and caught real people doing mundane things. One that struck me hard, and pained me to see, was Dead Horse.

I have seen war photography, and I have seen pictures of crime and death, but never of a horse. Maybe I have a soft spot for the animals, but this was something I never wanted to see. But maybe that is art – bringing to light what no one would intend on showing you. It evoked emotions, alright.

But the one piece that struck me the most, was Big Red by Sam Francis. I do not really know why, but I must have stood by myself staring for a good five minutes. The intricate layerings and the colors just brought about a lot in me. It must be the pure size of it – it’s huge – and the solemness of the painting. I almost wanted to cry.

So, I went home and made it my laptop background. It’s the most I can do to pay personal homage.

December 9, 2010   No Comments


Going to the ICP by myself was an interesting experience. I walked through the doors and was instantly confused; I hadn’t known anything of the sort existed. I had seen photography exhibits in famous museums but nothing like the ICP.

I walked around by myself, and said virtually nothing to those around me. I was able to take my time and not have to worry about keeping pace or getting back in time for club hours.

And so I dilly-dallied and took my time looking at the pictures. The two exhibitions, “The Mexican Suitcase” and the “Cuba in Revolution” were not in my favorite genre of photography, but they were impressive just the same. I have seen tons of war photography, but some in particular were fascinating.

My favorite exhibit was the “Cuba in Revolution.” It showed a people in a time of rebellion in the most unorthodox way. It showed celebration, and misery, and victory. It was dirty and extraordinary. It did not show vicious wounds, but those who were fighting for something and a sense of camaraderie in some.

The pictures showed every day people and the excitement in their eyes at the idea of changing something. The shocking part of the exhibit was seeing the iconic “Heroic Guerrilla” picture of Che Guevara that has become a pop culture image. I was used to seeing the polarized, cultured version of the famous rebel’s portrait, but got a chance to see the vintage print.

After checking out the exhibits, I learned that ICP offers photography classes (at a large price). They offer dozens of them, for beginners and experts. It seemed like something worth looking into. Maybe when Santa Claus comes to town, he’ll have ICP in mind.

December 9, 2010   No Comments

The MOMA: Gravity—and Expectations—Defied

If anything, I was skeptical. Modern art had always been a concept that I wasn’t all that enthusiastic to know more about. Still, I knew it wasn’t worth it to complain—so there I was.

The entrance restored my faith in our adventure. Within steps of the ropes was an exhibit that attracted the attention of dozens: two seamless pieces of what seemed to be film reel, moving back and forth suspended between two fans, adorned the rise before the stairs.  The work literally seemed to defy gravity, and the lighting made it possible for the clear, taut ropes keeping the reel aloft to be made invisible. Feeling slightly less wary of what I was to be subjected to, I ventured onward—and began to see fascinating things all around. One of the first pieces to catch my attention was Richard Pousette-Dart’s “Fugue #2.” At a first glance, it made no sense to me; it just looked like incoherent swirls and shapes. However, upon looking at the title, I began to realize a pattern. Knowing nothing of art, I drew upon my knowledge of music: a fugue is a piece of music that is written using the same main theme repeated and layered over itself. With that in mind, the painting seemed to be using the same concept; the more I looked at it, the more I could see repetition of swirl patterns, of subtle layering. It seemed as though the artist picked such a title to shroud the piece in further mystery than it offered alone, yet still offering insight into the intent that would otherwise be overlooked. Not all of the art was quite so discernable, though. Works such as Hans Hofmann’s “Memorie in Aeternum” caused me endless consternation—despite the piece’s beautiful colors, defined shapes and soft background, I could not determine the true meaning behind the piece (and the title certainly didn’t help me).

It seems that, although much modern art is quite prestigious—and rightfully so—some slip through the cracks…and onto the walls. Despite the fact that the definition of art isn’t incredibly subjective, I just couldn’t bring myself to accept some of the things that were exhibited. One example was the construction paper area. Sure, some of the works were intricate and beautiful, but I must admit that I almost laughed a little when I saw “Untitled (Collage with Squares Arranged According to the Laws of Chance).” I just couldn’t shake the feeling that my mom had kept something that I had made in kindergarten that looked just like that…

Still, as I shook my head and walked away, I realized that I was never far from a piece of art that shocked me with its skill and conceptual insight. Like the loops of film that were floating on the newly visible cables in the midday’s natural light, even though I was sometimes able to see through the myth of the glory of the MOMA, my expectations (like gravity) were defied—and in one of the most beautiful ways possible.

December 9, 2010   No Comments

Abstract Art

We often hear the clichéd phrase “art is in the eye of the beholder.”  It is based on this phrase, that I make the claim that the Abstract Expressionist Exhibit at the MoMA was completely bizarre. However in this context, bizarre doesn’t necessarily have a negative connotation.  I found some of these bizarre paintings aesthetically pleasing, while others not so much.

Jackson Pollock’s idiosyncratic style was perhaps the most eye-catching in the exhibit.  On his canvases we see a mesh of vibrant colors, and unique shapes and figures that do not fail to attract viewers.  My favorite painting by Jackson Pollock has to be “The Flame”.  In this painting, Jackson blends an array of colors to portray a formidable flame.  Another one of his paintings that really caught my attention was the “Stenographic Figure.” In this painting, there appears to be two alien like figures, but they are hard to distinguish because they are blended into the colorful background, and this adds to the strangeness of the painting.  This painting has a sense of insanity to it that makes it alluring.  Jackson’s “Number 1A”, which was one of the largest paintings in the exhibit, was also another painting that had this sense of insanity. It looked as if he just threw paint on the canvas.  This paint spill look, and the seemingly rough texture of this painting help in creating this effect.  Overall, Jackson Pollock’s work was extremely lively.

Some of the abstract art on display left me really confused.  The supposed artwork done by those such as Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko fit into this category of being confusing.  Due to the simplicity in their paintings, I could never consider their works as art.  Each one of Barnett Newman’s paintings on display was dominated by a solid color, with either one or a few vertical stripes.  One of his works, called “The Voice”, was just a blank white canvas, with a vertical stripe.  In my mind “The Voice” is an inappropriate title, as the work fails to generate even a whisper.  It is so lifeless, that from a distance, one might not be able to distinguish the painting from the wall it is lodged upon. Also, like Barnett Newman’s paintings, I can’t credit Mark Rothko’s work as being art, because his paintings were also overly simplistic. In his paintings, instead of using thin, vertical stripes, he uses thick horizontal stripes and places them on a solid background.  One such painting of his, “No. 14”, has four horizontal stripes placed on a brown background; it was a very bland painting.  As a viewer, I found it puzzling to see such simple works on display at the world famous Museum of Modern Art.

Every individual has a distinct taste for art, and with its large collection of artwork, the Museum of Modern Art, will satisfy all visitors.  In my mind, the Abstract Expressionist Exhibit has its highs and lows. I found the work of Jackson Pollock to be very energetic, while that of Mr. Newman and Mr. Rothko to be lackluster.  Overall, seeing this exhibit at the MoMA was a great experience, which allowed me to explore my views on abstract art.

links for images

December 9, 2010   No Comments

The Order of Art

What is art? That was the only question I still could not answer, even when I was standing in front of several well-known and celebrated paintings by several significant artists of the 20th century. Before I arrived at the Modern Museum of Art, I knew that the day would be a challenging one. As an art student, it seemed like I had to know what the exact criteria was for the perfect painting, or any piece of art really. To tell you the truth not a single person can give an accurate definition of what art is, and I had to discover this all on my own as I stood puzzled in front of Louis Nevelson’s Sky Cathedral. When I first observed it close up, I realized that each single section of the humongous sculpture was “art” in itself. Upon further reflection, Nevelson’s goal was to create a collage of sculptures, thus create a piece that was art within art. Standing alone in front of this majestic collage-like structure, I feel time halter just for a moment. Eureka!

The definition of art from any dictionary is the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power. After observing all the different pieces of Sky Cathedral, I can say I finally understand art, if only for my own understanding. Works of art are beautiful or emotionally moving because they appeal to the natural law of order and chaos. For the American born sculptor Louis Nevelson, chaos was one of his most creative and useful tools as an artist. The old saying, “From chaos comes order” contributes to the beauty of art, especially for collage-like sculptures. The difficulty of making unique miniature sculptures, and then conjoining them to make one beautiful sculpture displays the exact meaning of the saying. To all celebrated artists, they understand that art is not only a reflection of themselves, but also a technique in which they are able to establish order in a world overwhelmed by chaos.

The Trafalgar Square of the Dutch painter Piet Mondrian further exemplifies the truth in the saying. In the painting, Mondrian simply paints a few black lines and several yellow, red, and blue rectangular shapes. But this piece is considered beauty by its very definition because of the way random lines and shapes are put into a specific order to create such a painting. Every time we look at a painting such as this, we are specifically reminded of Mondrian’s work, simply because his style of painting lines in one place, and rectangular places in another remind everyone of this idea of order from chaos.

The trip to the MoMA was educational and entertaining because I was able to understand the full meaning of what art is. Although art may be subjective, there are several universal characteristics that make something a masterpiece. Personally, art is the transformation of a chaotic being or substance into that which is ordered and systematic. In retrospect, I feel that this personal definition holds true when reviewing the pieces of art I have seen at MoMA.

December 9, 2010   No Comments