MAIRA KALMAN: THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE Opens Today at The Frist
The Frist Center for the Visual Arts presents Maira Kalman: The Elements of Style from today, June 6-September 1, 2014, in the Gordon Contemporary Artists Project Gallery. The exhibition features paintings by artist, illustrator and author Maira Kalman, which were created to illustrate a 2005 re-publication of William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White's classic composition guide The Elements of Style.
Renowned as an authoritative treatise on clear and effective writing, The Elements of Style has offered distinctive guidance to readers since its debut in 1919 as a classroom text by Cornell University professor William Strunk Jr. In 1957 the author E.B. White, a former student of Strunk's, was asked to edit what was known around the Cornell campus as "the little book," for the general public. Today, after multiple printings and editions, The Elements of Style remains a delightful and famously idiosyncratic handbook for writers.
Charmed and inspired by what she calls the "glorious, nutty, cinematic, eccentric and wise" language of the text, Maira Kalman decided to create illustrations to accompany the text for a new edition. The result, The Elements of Style (Illustrated), was published by Penguin Books in 2005, and features paintings that respond to the text's exacting grammatical decrees and peculiar usage examples, e.g., "It was a unique eggbeater," with wit, whimsy and the artist's own vivid imagination. "Kalman embraces all that she observes and experiences. Her joie de vivre is infectious," says Dr. Susan H. Edwards, executive director of the Frist Center. "We as readers and viewers feel empowered to make expansive leaps back and forth recalling her voluminous sources from literature, art and poetry, as well as her delightful appreciation of everything from a donut to the idea that a person wearing alligator shoes would have an alligator on each foot."
Kalman's 56 paintings, all gouache on paper, feature strong colors, flattened spaces, floating objects, and childlike figures that provide settings for riddles. The viewer asks: How does the image reflect the text, and what, if anything, is wrong with the text, anyway? This provides enjoyable experiences in both literary and visual literacy. Reflecting on the painting "'Be Obscure Clearly' Be wild of tongue in a way we can understand!" Dr. Edwards notes, "Kalman's accompanying illustration is a table filled with special treats: champagne, champagne glasses, chocolates, anemones, tulips, compotes, crystal goblets, teacups and plates with a rose pattern...all pink and white and red on a neutral tablecloth in a caramel colored room. It is clearly articulated for us. Eat dessert first."
Nico Muhly, a contemporary classical music composer who has collaborated with a number of classical and pop/rock artists, created an accompanying song cycle scored for soprano, tenor, viola, banjo and percussion. In the Frist Center installation, visitors will be able to listen to the music while viewing the paintings. "The addition of Nico Muhly's composition adds an unexpected twist," says Frist Center Chief Curator Mark Scala. "Just as the artwork grew out of a literary text, the songs exemplify ways that inspiration can cross disciplines to delightful effect." Looping the exhibition into another dimension, Kalman will also curate, in the gallery, a table of objects that were used by her friends and family to make soft percussive noises in the performance of Muhly's composition. Visitors may listen intently to identify the sound that a cup and saucer might make.
As a special aspect of the installation, Kalman will hand-paint the exhibition's title onto the wall during the media preview. Scala explains that Kalman's hand is in such evidence throughout her paintings, "that we thought it would be wonderful to have her participate in the actual design of the exhibition. By performing this action in front of an audience, she will remind viewers that an exhibition is, among other things, the 'theater of presentation.'"