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Brush strokes from the masters

Gauguin exhibit at the National Gallery towers over other spring shows



Painter Paul Gauguin put himself in the position of Jesus in his famous work "Christ in the Garden of Olives." (Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Art)

Sometimes he signed his painting with the name Paul Gauguin. But sometimes he didn’t, choosing to style himself on the canvas instead as simply “P Go.”

The name Paul Gauguin of course looms large for manifest good reason, in the pantheon of post-impressionist painting, as one of the true modern great masters, just as the new show, “Gauguin — Maker of Myth,” at the National Gallery of Art East Building, looms so large also, casting its grand and glorious shadow over the spring 2011 world of D.C.-area galleries and museums.

He was, in effect, a pedophile, slaking his admitted appetite for the nubile young Polynesian nymphets whose beckoning bodies and come-hither glances are the standard trope of the final phase of his work. There, in the primitive paradise he sought in the South Seas, in Tahiti, where he died in 1903, he painted these young girls as exotic and erotic Eves, tempting him in the tropical garden, having abandoned his wife and children, a refugee from his earlier life, on the surface at least, as a proper bourgeois stockbroker in the Paris bourse.

Yes, of course there is other work of the visual arts to see this spring in the area. And much of it is also great. But the Gauguin show, unequivocally, should be seen first. It’s the first in the region in more than 20 years.

Earl “Rusty” Powell, the NGA director, describes the exhibit this way: “Gauguin spent a lifetime traveling to distant lands uncorrupted (he hoped) by civilization, but instead of finding a real paradise, he eventually found it only in his mythic dream world, where reality ended and the imagination began.” And that was his genius, together with his command of technique and his breakthrough innovations with form and color.

The new show, at the NGA through June 5, Powell says is “fabulous” and “spellbinding.”

One eye-opening example, says guest curator Belinda Thomson — who calls Gauguin a “rule-breaker” and an “embattled figure, in conflict with others and himself” — is his “blasphemous but arresting portrait of himself as Christ,” a stunning oil on canvas of 1889, “Christ in the Garden of Olives,” from the period before he moved to the South Seas, when he painted in a small studio in Brittany.

The colossus exhibit of Gauguin of course faces some competition elsewhere in Washington, but two of its rivals are actually also at the NGA.

First, there is the jet-black gondola outside the arched entrance to the East Building’s new show “Venice: Canaletto and His Rivals,” there through May 30. This is the first major exhibit to feature Canaletto, the 18th century “view painter” whose meticulous depiction of scenes from the city of lagoons formed a major motif of the English view of Venice. The show features 21 masterworks by Canaletto himself and 34 by his rivals including the arguably equally great Guardi.

The other NGA exhibit, however, is small scale where the other two are vast in either vista or vision. It is formed of simply two paintings, pairing two works by the little-known early 17th century Dutch artist Hendrick ter Brugghen, yet it is still titled “Larger Than Life.” And it is. One of the paintings is “Saint Sebastian Tended by Irene, 1625,” a religious scene obviously, on loan from Oberlin College in Ohio for this exhibit, which closes May 15 in the NGA’s West Building. The Dutch artist, powerfully influenced by the gay painter Caravaggio, brought the Italian’s style back to Utrecht where the Dutchman soon became recognized as one of the city’s several “Caravaggisti.”

“Sebastian” is paired with another ter Brugghen called “Bagpipe Player, 1624,” recently purchased by the NGA for a cool $10 million and clearly worth every penny. The latter painting is so very different from the Saint Sebastian and setting them side by side offers ample occasion for reflection on the spectrum of human possibility. See them both on the main floor of the West Building in the Dutch and Flemish galleries.

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PHOTOS: Superstar Drag Review

Bombalicious Eklaver leads the show at Selina Rooftop



Superstar Drag Review (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Bombalicious Eklaver held a Superstar Drag Review at the Selina Hotel Rooftop on Friday, Nov. 25. DJ Juba provided the music.

(Washington Blade photos by Michael Key)

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Memoir reveals gay writer’s struggle with homelessness, rape

‘Place Called Home’ a powerful indictment of foster care system



(Book cover image courtesy Legacy Lit/Hachette)

A Place Called Home: A Memoir
By David Ambroz
c. 2022, Legacy Lit/Hachette
$30/384 pages

For David Ambroz, 42, author of the stunning new memoir “A Place Called Home,” one of his childhood recollections is of himself and his siblings walking with Mary, their mother, on a freezing Christmas morning in New York City.

Today, Ambroz, who is gay and a foster parent, is a poverty and child welfare expert and the head of Community Engagement (West) for Amazon.

But, on that morning, Ambroz remembers, when he was five, he and his seven-year-old sister Jessica and six-year-old brother Alex were freezing. Mary, their mother was severely mentally ill. They were homeless.

Ambroz draws you into his searing memoir with his first sentence. “I’m hungry,” he writes in the simple, frightened, perceptive voice of a malnourished, shivering little boy.

As it got dark and colder, Ambroz recalls, he walked with his family, wearing “clownishly large” sneakers “plucked from the trash.” 

Five-year-old Ambroz remembers that the night before his family got lucky. They had dinner (mac and cheese) at a church “with a sermon on the side.”  

“We heard the story of the three kings bringing gifts to the baby Jesus,” Ambroz writes.

But the next day they’re still homeless and hungry. Talk about no room at the inn.

Young Ambroz doesn’t know the word “death,” but he (literally) worries that he and his family will die. Frozen, hungry and invisible to uncaring passersby.

Ambroz’s mom, a nurse, is occasionally employed and able to house her family in dilapidated apartments. But she’s soon ensnared by her mental illness, unable to work. Then, her family is homeless again.

Until, he was 12, Ambroz and his siblings were abused and neglected by their mother.

Ambroz doesn’t know as a young boy that he’s gay. But, he can tell he’s different. Instead of playing street games with the other kids, Ambroz likes to play “doctor” with another boy in the neighborhood.

Mary tells him being gay is sinful and that you’ll die from AIDS if you’re queer.

His mother, having decided that he’s Jewish, makes Ambroz undergo a badly botched circumcision. At one point, she beats him so badly that he falls down a flight of stairs.

At 12, Ambroz reports this abuse to the authorities and he’s placed into the foster care system.

If you think this country’s foster care system is a safe haven for our nation’s 450,000 kids in foster care, Ambroz will swiftly cut through that misperception.

From ages 12 to 17, Ambroz is ricocheted through a series of abusive, homophobic foster placements.

One set of foster parents try to make him more “macho,” rent him out to work for free for their friends and withhold food from him. At another placement, a counselor watches and does nothing as other kids beat him while hurling gay slurs.

Thankfully, Ambroz meets Holly and Steve who become fabulous foster parents. Ambroz has been abused and hungry for so long he finds it hard to understand that he can eat whatever he wants at their home.

Through grit, hard work and his intelligence, Ambroz earned a bachelor’s degree from Vassar College, was an intern at the White House and graduated from the UCLA School of Law. Before obtaining his position at Amazon, he led Corporate Social Responsibility for Walt Disney Television.

But none of this came easily for him. Coming out was hard for many LGBTQ people in the 1990s. It was particularly difficult for Ambroz.

In college, Ambroz is deeply closeted. He’s ashamed to reveal anything about his past (growing up homeless and in foster care) and his sexuality. 

At one point, he’s watching TV, along with other appalled students, as the news comes on about Matthew Shepard being murdered because he was gay. Ambroz can see that everyone is enraged and terrified by this hate crime. Yet, he’s too ashamed to reveal anything of his sexuality.

Over Christmas vacation, Ambroz decides it’s time to explore his sexuality.

Telling no one, Ambroz takes a train to Miami. There, he goes home with a man (who he meets on a bus) who rapes him.

“I run in no particular direction just away from this monster,” he recalls. “When I get back to my hotel room, I’m bleeding…I order food delivered but can’t eat any of it.”

“A Place Called Home” has the power of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring.”

Ambroz’s writing becomes less powerful when he delves into the weeds of policy. But this is a minor quibble.

Ambroz is a superb storyteller. Unless you lack a heartbeat, you can’t read “A Place Called Home” without wanting to do something to change our foster care system. 

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New book explores impact of family secrets

Her father was hiding his sexual orientation



(Book cover image courtesy HarperOne)

The Family Outing: A Memoir
By Jessi Hempel
c. 2022, HarperOne
$27.99/320 pages

Don’t tell the children.

For most families in America in the last century, that was the maxim to live by: the kids are on a need-to-know basis and since they’re kids, they don’t need to know. And so what did you miss? Did you know about familial philanthropy, rebellion, embarrassment, poverty? As in the new memoir, “The Family Outing” by Jessi Hempel, did secrets between parent and child run both ways?

“What happened to me?”

That’s the big question Jessi Hampel had after many therapy sessions to rid herself of a recurring nightmare. She had plenty of good memories. Her recollection of growing up in a secure family with two siblings was sharp, wasn’t it?

She thought so – until she started what she called “The Project.”

With permission from her parents and siblings, Hempel set up Skype and Zoom sessions and did one-on-one interviews with her family, to try to understand why her parents divorced, why her brother kept mostly to himself, how the family dynamics went awry, why her sister kept her distance, and how secrets messed everything up.

Hempel’s father had an inkling as a young man that he was gay, but his own father counseled him to hide it. When he met the woman who would eventually be his wife, he was delighted to become a husband and father, as long as he could sustain it.

Years before, Hempel’s mother was your typical 1960s teenager with a job at a local store, a crush on a slightly older co-worker and, coincidentally, a serial killer loose near her Michigan neighborhood. Just after the killer was caught, she realized that the co-worker she’d innocently flirted with might’ve been the killer’s accomplice.

For nearly the rest of her life, she watched her back.

One secret, one we-don’t-discuss-it, and a young-adult Hempel was holding something close herself. What else didn’t she know? Why did she and her siblings feel the need for distance? She was trying to figure things out when the family imploded.

Ever had a dream that won’t stop visiting every night? That’s where author Jessi Hempel starts this memoir, and it’s the perfect launching point for “The Family Outing.”

Just prepare yourself. The next step has Hempel telling her mother’s tale for which, at the risk of being a spoiler, you’ll want to leave the lights on. This account will leave readers good and well hooked, and ready for the rest of what turns out to be quite a detective story.

And yet, it’s a ways away from the Sherlockian. Readers know what’s ahead, we know the score before we get there, but the entwining of five separate lives in a fact-finding mission makes this book feel as though it has a surprise at every turn.

Sometimes, it’s a good surprise. Sometimes, it’s a bad one.

A happily minimized amount of profanity and a total lack of overtness make “The Family Outing” a book you can share with almost anyone, adult, or ally. Read it, and you’ll be wanting to tell everyone.

The Blade may receive commissions from qualifying purchases made via this post.

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