10/18/2012 12:59 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Artists Who Know How to Tell a Good Story


I wonder if you have ever heard our British friends say, "Children should be seen but not heard." Sometimes, when I have the chance to hear artists speak about their work, I feel that the same rule applies to them: "Artists, preferably, should be seen but not heard." I have spoken with a number of very good artists who, to put it mildly, were tongue-tied, but it didn't at all affect my appreciation of their work. On the other hand, I have encountered artists who were so verbose that instead of giving me insight into their work they lost me in the sea of their words.


However, there is an exception to every rule. On occasion, I meet a good artist whose work I find appealing and who, on top of that, turns out to be an engaging and even provocative speaker. Today I want to tell you about three artists I know who belong to this rare group.


Let's start with Douglas Kirkland who, for the last 50 years, has had the good luck to photograph the "Who's Who" of Hollywood. One of his first assignments was a photo session with a young Elizabeth Taylor. And, shortly after that -- lucky devil -- he was aiming his camera at a virtually naked Marilyn Monroe, wrapped only in a silk sheet. When you see the resulting photos in his recently published book, With Marilyn: An Evening 1961, you cannot help but melt into the dreamy images of this most beautiful and most vulnerable of American icons. But, boy, when Douglas tells you stories about all his glamorous photo shoots, that's when you really start to drool.


Last week, I met another great storyteller, the Israeli-born artist Ofri Cnaani, who spoke with particular eloquence at the opening of her exhibition at USC's Fisher Museum of Art. There, in a darkened gallery, you find yourself immersed in her video installation, projected on all four walls. The work is inspired by a Talmudic story about two sisters, one of whom is suspected of infidelity.


Her husband takes her to a temple where she is supposed to prove her virtue by drinking the bitter water. If she is innocent, it will not harm her, but if she is indeed guilty, then her womb will literally explode. If you want to learn the rest of this dark tale and to be surprised by Ofri's very contemporary interpretation of this ancient fable, then jump in your car and head to USC before the show closes on December 1.


Last year, when I found myself wandering through the visual jungle of MOCA's Art in the Streets, the work of one particular artist stopped me in my tracks. I had never heard his name before but I was struck by his graffiti-inspired paintings, with their references to the art of calligraphy and Egyptian hieroglyphs. His work had an unusual combination of exuberance and discipline. Refinement is not usually the first word that comes to mind when one encounters street art, but in the case of RETNA, that is exactly the feeling that stays with you long after experiencing his work. And when at last I had the chance to meet the artist at his current show at Michael Kohn Gallery, he definitely proved himself to be one of those rare exceptions to my aforementioned rule. Talking about his art and life, RETNA was so charismatic, so engaging that he reminded me of another old saying: here is a man who could charm the birds out of the trees.


Ofri Cnaani: The Sota Project at the USC Fisher Museum of Art
Runs through Saturday, December 1, 2012

RETNA, New Paintings and Works on Paper at the Michael Kohn Gallery
Runs through October 27, 2012

Edward Goldman is an art critic and the host of Art Talk, a program on art and culture for NPR affiliate KCRW 89.9 FM. To listen to the complete show and hear Edward's charming Russian accent, click here.

Banner Image: Marilyn Monroe and Douglas Kirkland. Photograph © Douglas Kirkland.