March 4, 2013

Gbavo indeed

I have been reading the British Museum’s blog, mostly because I am a pathetic anglophile, but partially because it is really, really interesting. I know they cheat by having looted the entire world for a hundred years to build a collection, but seriously, if anybody wants to know how to use a blog to make people who visit occasionally want to come in and visit more often, this is it.

On the other hand, there are certain… problems with pathetic anglophilia, or at least with combining pathetic anglophilia with a modern liberal view of the universe and cultural whatnot. And it’s not just that some works are inherently and artfully troubling. But this Sowei mask, while a little goofy to my eyes, isn’t inherently troubling. Well, but then I love the interaction between cultures, the friction between them sparking off new alloy-art. So the awesomeness of the top hat totally outweighs the troublingness for me as far as the artwork itself goes.

It’s the context, of course. Remember about the looting? This was looted—scientifically looted, but looted—in the late nineteenth century by a fellow named Thomas J. Alldridge, who was first a trading agent and then an administrator for the British colonial government. That career path in itself is so unremarkable and so telling that all the items brought back should be assumed to be problematic. And the British Museum knows this, they know it better than anybody. They have the fucking Elgin Marbles, for the love of proverbial, so they do have an understanding of what’s so problematic about this ritual object sitting in their museum.

So what do they do? Here’s the thing that is so beautifully and tragically British about it. They know that they have the thing in the first place because of colonial looting, not just of this work but of the natural resources of the whole region that brought the looters in the first place. They also know that they aren’t going to do anything foolish like give it away—they are the British Museum, they are obviously the best place for a valuable item like that. It’s the burden desire of the British after all to protect lesser peoples and their pretense to culture provide world class facilities for visitors and researchers taking conservation, scientific research and collection management to a new level of excellence. Er, that last bit is from the press materials, obviously.

So they work with the local Sierra Leonean community to validate their hold on the item. The ritual and ceremony appear to have been beautiful: read, as they say, the whole thing, as well as watching what I hope to successfully embed below.

So why is Your Humble Blogger so troubled? It’s this: they worked closely with Sierra Leoneans who had resettled in England. This is not a representative sample of the Old Country. In dealing with the specific question of their relationship to the postcolonial white guys, I’m thinking that they have, let’s say, come to terms with the British legacy. So when the British Museum is coming to terms with its legacy of Sierra Leonean loot, it strikes me as absolutely cheating to work with those people who have already come to terms with the British. And—in the year twenty thirteen, is it not so utterly British to consult with those Sierra Leoneans who happen to be in London?

Now, there’s something endearing about that magnificent Anglo-arrogance. Well, endearing to me. That’s how we can watch Downton Abbey without throwing up, right? And I do want to emphasize that the British Museum is a world-class facility for objects of that kind, and that it’s true that way more people will see the thing and learn about the culture than if it were back in Sierra Leone, and they really put a lot of effort into contacting and working with people, when they totally could have just put the thing in a box and focused a light on it. They, you know, Did the Right Thing. And that’s what is so beautifully and tragically British about it, innit?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

January 26, 2013

Beckett and Still, Kaufman and Cole

Your Humble Blogger has for a long time had an idea about modern non-representational art that doesn’t appear to have made it to this Tohu Bohu. Essentially, it’s that if you look at a work of representational art—say, a landscape—and if you don’t get what’s good about it, or more important, even if it’s kinda crappy, you can still say oh, trees, sky, hill, got it and there you are. If you look at a non-representational piece and you don’t get what’s good about it, or if it’s kinda crappy (no link there, thanks), then you don’t have anything at all. No trees or sky. No face or body. Nothing to hang on to.

And there is, I think naturally, a sense that you’re being ripped off, or made fun of somehow, or are otherwise at a disadvantage. I think that’s part of why people get angry about it. If you don’t get it, you don’t get anything at all, and it just makes it worse that the circumjacent hipsters are murmuring exquisite… absolutely exquisite.

The reason I bring this up in this Tohu Bohu at this time, having espoused the idea in conversations over many years, is that Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart are bringing their Godot to Broadway. And a large number of my friends had reactions that were probably best characterized as Oh, no, not Godot. Which is of course legit—people are different, one to another, and like and dislike different plays. But what I’m wondering is whether my idea about non-representational art applies to Samuel Beckett’s plays. If you don’t like them and/or you see a kinda crappy production, there may not be anything there at all. If you see a kinda crappy production of You Can’t Take it With You, well, there’s a plot, and problems with resolutions and so forth. You may not enjoy it, and you may well feel ripped off, but you have something. Godot or Endgame, not so much.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

December 3, 2012

Bounce, Charlie Brown, Bounce!

All I’m saying is that I don’t see how anything could possibly go wrong with installing a 170-foot long trampoline between the academic buildings and the dorms.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

November 30, 2012


Can somebody please explain to me about the AIDS chairs? My employer observed World AIDS Day (early, which makes sense because the weekend starts on Thursday around here) by getting eighty-eight red ribbon-chairs and setting them out on the lawn. Nobody sat on them. There wasn’t (as far as I can tell from the press release) a fund-raiser. There were just these chairs, empty chairs, looking like red ribbons, sitting on the grass.

It was unsettling.

Was that the purpose? Just, one day, chairs, and the next day, nothing?

The site says that the chairs symbolize “the urgent need to re-engage and re-energize the AIDS movement”, which makes me think that they are aiming for something more than unsettling. But maybe unsettling is good? I’m used to AIDS stuff aiming at a combination of funny and angry (like this) so my frame may be off. But I just don’t get it. Chairs? Just chairs? That look like red ribbons?

If any of y’all get it, can you explain it to me?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

January 17, 2012

A day late, and a dollar short

Apologies, Gentle Readers, for not having posted a Martin Luther King, Junior Day note of any kind. We should, as Americans, work to observe the day, and I did spend some time both discussing the Civil Rights movement with the Perfect Non-Reader (of this blog) and going through some of the texts of Dr. King himself. If y’all didn’t see the news, the King Center Archive is now on-line. It’s an amazing time-eater, it really is. I could spend days looking at stuff like this and this and this.

Anyway, I missed the chance to write a MLK Day note. And what I wanted to say—you know, when I was in high school, to the extent they told me anything about Civil Rights, the whole movement pretty much started when Rosa Parks got on the bus and was over by the time she sat down, and the full credit for it goes to Martin Luther King, Junior. No roots, no branches, not even much of a struggle—segregation and Jim Crow was overthrown by Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks, and now let’s go back to winning the Cold War. It was deliberate, and while the women who taught the American History, Civics and Free Enterprise classes at my high school were good union liberals, it was clear they felt constrained on the issue (even more on Civil Rights than on the anti-Vietnam movement, in which I feel sure they both participated) and did not make a stand. Ironic, I suppose.

I was reminded of this because the library that employs me is at the moment enjoying an exhibition of Robert Templeton’s paintings on the wall; Frederick Douglass glares down from the wall opposite the circ desk. I was joking with a student worker about how I would have preferred Martin, and I think perhaps even Malcolm, although my co-worker disagreed with me about the latter. But it was clear that the student, all of nineteen or so, had no idea who Frederick Douglass was, or why he was on the wall. I don’t know whether I would have known, when I was nineteen. I would not have understood the work that I can see right now, hung on the far wall, which is called Eighty Years in The Black Civil Rights Movement.

Digression: there is a novel I read in, I would guess, 1996 or 1997, set in the thirties or forties, in which a teenager who is gifted at jazz (I think a bass player, but I can’t swear to it) gets an opportunity to join a big band for the summer, travelling with them and playing with them. There’s a scene, a magnificent scene, on the bus (or possibly a train?) where the members of the band start reciting the Gettysburg Address, and talking some history into the kid’s head. Does anybody know the book? I want to reread it, at least that one great scene, and I may want to pass it along to my Perfect Non-Reader, if it’s appropriate—I have a vague sense it was a YA novel, but it ain’t necessarily so. End Digression.

It’s not a great painting. The collage effect doesn’t quite work, and the composition doesn’t quite work, and besides the whole thing is incredibly heavy-handed. And yet, there it is: the sands of time, and in the middle of it, the right man at the right moment, Martin Luther King (being arrested. Not being given the Peace Prize, not being listened to, not being shot) at the crux of history but visibly only a tiny part of it. Eighty years in the black civil rights movement. Lest we forget.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

August 21, 2009

Behind the Door

Some Gentle Readers will be aware of the very disturbing Marcel Duchamp piece behind wooden doors in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Others, presumably, not so much. Even some of y’all who have been in that museum (running up the stairs and singing “Gonna Fly Now!” recommended but not required) may not have found the piece, or not have found the peepholes. You have to go around a corner, sort of, and M. Duchamp being M. Duchamp, it would be understandable to assume that the big doors were the entirety of the art. They are not. There is something on the other side of the doors.

I’m not prepared, at the moment, to talk about what is on the other side of the doors, or what I think about the piece (which M. Duchamp gave the title Étant donnés: 1. la chute d’eau, 2. le gaz d’eclairage… ) as a work. The thing I’ll mention is that the power of the work, to me, came from the peepholes. The way that the artist controlled the view made the work what it is; the dominant parts of the experience, for me, were (1) my inability to see any more of what was behind the door than the set-up allowed, no matter how I rolled my eyes and wiggled my head, and (B) my inability to share the experience of viewing it with my companions, as only one at a time can approach it.

Oh, we could talk about it, afterward, and we compare our experiences, but we couldn’t see it together. That distance, and that control, without that alienating experience, I don’t know that I would remember the thing at all. And, of course, part of that is that I could choose not to share my experience, to remain alienated, or perhaps to hug the thing to myself. Or to deny it altogether.

M. Duchamp evidently kept the existence of the piece secret for a while, and when the Museum acquired it, they refused for years to let the inside be photographed. When I first saw the thing, and when I second saw it, and when I saw it third as well, I was under the impression that it was still under an interdict, so when I eventually saw a photograph of the inside, I was distressed. In fact, I had an emotional response to that photograph that was probably wildly inappropriate. It was, as it happened, in a scholarly journal of art history, accompanying a scholarly article on the piece. But still, it seemed as if there shouldn’t be photographs, that the photographs were an exploitation at the least, and a betrayal in spirit. A betrayal of who? An exploitation of who? I don’t know. But that’s how it tasted to YHB.

Now, in this internetty age, you can Google yourself images of the inside all you like, and they will have no power whatsoever. I hope you don’t. I hope, if you haven’t walked up to those doors, that you will reserve for yourself the possibility of someday walking up to them and having the experience of looking through them alone and without control. Not that you will enjoy the experience, necessarily. Or that you will ever actually do it. Just that I want you to keep that possibility for yourself, even if you never intend to do anything about it.

And, of course, at all costs avoid the Exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art this Autumn.

If, on the other hand, you already have had that experience, have tasted the frustration and isolation, and want to go around the other side, as it were, to read the instruction manual and look at the record, to walk around backstage and under work lights. Of course, it’ll be a tour; it won’t be special. I don’t know if I’d go, myself, but then, alas, it looks like I won’t be in Greater Philly this Autumn, anyway.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

July 20, 2009

Drawing on walls

Your Humble Blogger has been trying to figure out what to write about the fabulous Sol LeWitt Exhibit at MassMoca, which I visited last week. Some of y’all may be familiar with Mr. LeWitt, Greater Hartford’s greatest artist, and some of y’all not so much. I have been a big fan for, well, for quite some time. I don’t remember if it goes back before an exhibit at MFA, Boston in the fall of 1994, or whether that was my first introduction. I do remember being amazed by the works I saw then, both the large scale and small scale stuff (although the structures didn’t really move me, and still don’t). I took a long time at that exhibition, which I could do, because I had no children, and because my Best Reader also was blown away, although by somewhat different things.

What knocked me out? I’ll try to explain it, but I doubt I’ll convince anybody who hasn’t seen the stuff. You know, it occurs to me that I’ve been saying for some time that people (in my experience) seem to not be knocked out by Mark Rothko’s stuff, and then some of them have what I have taken to calling a Rothko Moment, a sort of epiphany where they stand in front of his stuff, and suddenly they find it so emotionally moving that their entire experience of modern art changes entirely. I’ve never had a Rothko Moment, but perhaps half-a-dozen people have described to me their Rothko Moments whilst I have nodded and shrugged and envied them. What I’m saying, people are different one to another, and that’s what makes the world interesting and fun. But with art, and particularly (I think) with non-representative modern art, that means that some of y’all will have already had your Sol LeWitt moment, some of you will never have it, and some will have it someday, and nothing I say is going to really change that, nor should it. But still.

What enthralled me, from the beginning, about Mr. LeWitt’s stuff, is a combination of a rigorous and austere mathematical conceptualism with a stunning, visceral almost frighteningly dominant beauty. Works that are (seemingly) generated from an arbitrary set of rules turn out to be breathtakingly fabulous. Works that stunned me with their visual drama turned out to be the result of obsessive repetition guided by meticulous instruction. Oh, not everything works for me, but again and again I find myself having a multiple-level reaction: first knocked over by the sheer look of the thing, the sumptuousness or the clarity or the… well, the beauty of the thing, one way or another. Then, on close inspection, discovering the pattern or the rule. Then, stepping back again, finding new patterns—or attempting to find them and being frustrated or dazzled out of them.

A few years later, I saw a piece in the Tate Modern, I believe it was A Wall Divided Vertically into Fifteen Equal Parts, Each with a Different Line Direction and Colour, and All Combinations, and I was knocked out again. I don’t have a picture of it to link to, and I don’t think that a photograph would give you any sense of the piece itself. All it is, really, is a wall, divided vertically into fifteen equal parts, the leftmost part (looking at it) having very fine vertical lines in black pencil, the next part having very fine horizontal lines in yellow pencil, the next having very fine diagonal lines in red pencil going from upper right to lower left, and the next having very fine diagonal lines in blue pencil going from upper left to lower right. That’s four parts. The fifth (counting from your left while looking at it) has both vertical black lines and horizontal yellow lines; the sixth has vertical black lines and diagonal red lines, the seventh has vertical black lines and diagonal blue lines. We are now at the middle of the wall, right? Proceeding, the eighth panel from the left (or the right) has horizontal yellow lines and diagonal red lines, the ninth has horizontal yellow lines and diagonal blue lines, the tenth has diagonal red and diagonal blue lines. We’re two-thirds of the way to the end. The next part, eleventh from the left, fifth from the right, has vertical black lines, horizontal yellow lines, and diagonal red lines. The twelfth has vertical black, horizontal yellow and diagonal blue lines. The thirteenth has a naked lady. No, just wanted to see if you had nodded off there, the thirteenth has vertical black, diagonal red and diagonal blue lines, and the fourteenth has horizontal yellow, diagonal red and diagonal blue lines. And the last, the rightmost panel, has all four.

Boy, that doesn’t sound pretty at all, does it?

But it was. It was gorgeous. The wall starts out (viewing it from left to right from across the room) very delicate and pale grey, yellow, red (pink, really) and blue, and then darkens, changes hue and intensity. Toward the middle, the colors combine with the patters to hit a serene beauty; toward the right, an ominous complexity. As you walk closer to the wall, you see the different colors that combine; from very close, you can finally see the lines, crossing in patterns. The edges where the panels meet were fascinating as well; from a distance, they seem almost blurry, particularly toward the right side, while when you get your nose up almost to the wall, they are crisp and mechanical.

And I want to emphasize this part of the experience—when you are close enough to see the individual lines on one part, you can see the lines on perhaps the panels just on either side, but when you turn your head a bit to see the panels further down the wall, your eyes can’t make out the individual lines and you begin to mix the colors together in your head. To see the piece, to really look at it, you need to look from a distance, look from the middle, then put your nose an inch away, walk the length of the wall, weave back and forth across the room, attempt to stand in two or three places at once, and finally, both frustrated and satiated, walk away from it.

I could have happily spent twenty minutes in that room, just looking at the wall.

That drawing was not, alas, one of the works included in the retrospective at MassMoca. There were similar works, and works that I had a similar response to, but not that one.

And then, when we moved here, there was a visit to the Atheneum, where not only were there two lovely wall drawings of swooping vibrant colors, but also (at the moment of the visit) a delicate wall drawing of colored pencil lines and four smallish drawings-on-paper in a series called Scribbles that I hadn’t seen before. Or seen anything like them, really. There are a few at MassMOCA, but those first works I saw and the magnificent one at the New Britain Museum of American Art are not there.

The Scribbles (and here I will describe them in a way that makes them sound utterly boring and devoid of beauty) as a series all involve fine-point graphite lines, black ones on most of the works (the ones I like, anyway), drawn on the wall in, well, scribbles, to a density that is defined according to rules Mr. LeWitt has set out. Those rules create large images that are visible from across the room: a cross, a square, a horizontal bar, a vertical line. Sometimes the large figure appears to be shaded, with a gradation of dark to light; sometimes the line is abrupt. When you go close, you can see the tangle of individual pencil lines, invisible from the distance. When you go close, the large figures become invisible, too, lost in the tangle of individual pencil lines. In the darkest parts of the drawing, the scribbling is so dense that you can’t make out the individual pencil lines at all.

There are no straight lines in these works; the impression of straight lines comes from the aggregate made by scribbles turning on themselves rather than heading out (or in). But that impression is there. Looking carefully at the border between regions of different density gives an impression of movement contrasted with solidity, freedom and license, order and randomness. When the darkest level of density gives way to gray, I get the impression of lines breaking free, emerging into open space. Or returning to the dark. And I step toward the wall and away from it myself, exchanging one view for another, each step toward the wall or away from it changing the entire piece.

I have already gone on much too long, particularly as Gentle Readers who have no experience with Sol LeWitt will not get that from this note. Photographs of his work can be lovely, but they don’t convey the experience of seeing them in person. In particular, since part of what I love about his stuff is the tension between large-scale beauty, viewed from a distance, and small-scale rigor, viewed up close, there is no good way to duplicate that experience with photographs (even a video of the Scribbling, while a terrific video in itself, doesn’t do that). But I hope I’ve conveyed that my experience over a decade or so has been tremendous, and that I have had several experiences of seeing new Sol LeWitt works, new to me at any rate, that looked utterly different from the works I had seen before, but that were clearly connected with the same concepts he had been interested in all along. And which I found breathtaking.

Sol LeWitt is the only visual artist that I have had that experience with over the years. I’m not sure if I have really had that with musicians. David Byrne, perhaps, would put out an album (Rei Momo, f’r’ex) that expressed fundamental David-Byrne-ness-osity in a different musical vocabulary. Or Paul Simon. There are playwrights and perhaps filmmakers, too, although I can’t off the top of my head think of any. Novelists? Well, anyway, I hope you have such an experience with some artist of some kind, Gentle Reader, because it is terrific.

Because, you see, there I was, going through the exhibit. Which is, I must say, a really remarkable achievement, and I think in itself justifies the entire existence of MassMoca. There is nowhere else capable of displaying a retrospective of this size, and they came into existence to do precisely that, and they have done it, and done it extraordinarily well. The exhibit is wonderful, and I can’t think of any way they could have improved on it, and I hope that everybody who is interested at all gets up to North Adams to see it. Y’all have plenty of time. I’ll be back in ten years, if I don’t go sooner. Anyway, there I was going through the exhibit, and I went in on the second floor, which is more or less how you go in to it. The floors go up by chronology, so the first floor is the earliest stuff, the second floor in the middle, and the top floor the most recent, including the Scribbles and all. And as I say, I went in on the second floor. And there were some pieces that worked really well ( including Wall Drawing 343 and a stunningly fabulous corridor of Wall Drawing 413 and Wall Drawing 414), together with a bunch of stuff that didn’t work as well for me. And we went up to the third floor, where the Scribble are, and that was wonderful. And then we went around a corner and saw Wall Drawing 821A, which was cool, and Wall Drawing 822, which was absolutely incredible, and also Wall Drawing 824 which was just luscious.

I’ve put links there to things with photographs, mostly as identifiers, so that if you get a chance to go, you will know which ones absolutely melted Your Humble Blogger. I see no reason for anyone to be melted by the photographs. Although, if you look at the time lapse for Wall Drawing 822, toward the end (after they’ve taken the brown paper off), you can get some sense of the way the piece interacts with the light. But the richness of the thing, no. But you can, I suppose, see in the photographs that they don’t look like his other pieces, and yet they are fundamentally Sol LeWitt works. And I can’t tell you that you would like them, Gentle Reader, because people are different one to another, but I can tell you that I was transfixed.

And then I went down to the first floor and saw some of the earlier, funnier wall drawings, which was also a terrific experience. And then my eyes were full and I had to go and sit down and drink iced tea.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

February 24, 2009

Coffee, Books, Art

I would just like to go on record as saying that it turns out that opening a café in the library was a Good Idea. And I like Op Art, on the whole. But Op Art in the library café is a Bad Idea.

Or, just maybe, I will change my mind about this, too. But I doubt it.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

September 19, 2008

Don't beat time, eat time!

I suspect that many Gentle Readers will find the Corpus Clock a thing of coolness.

I know I do.

I think the coolest thing is that the clock action slows down and speeds up—I think you can see it at one point essentially stop behind him—without losing time over the course of the day. Well, no, the coolest thing is the evil grasshopper escarpment that eats the time.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

September 9, 2008

20 grains a canvas, which is more than Vincent got

Y’all know about the goofy vocabulary test free rice, right? You know stuff, people eat. Easy as… er… what’s that thing? With the crust?

Well, for those Gentle Readers who are more visually whatsit, click on subjects and donate rice by recognizing Great Works of Art. Name the painter! Hint: Rocky Marciano is not a Great Painter.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

May 10, 2008

Puff Piece: The Morgan Bible

Well, darn. I happened to come across a lovely facsimile of the Morgan Picture Bible, and I wanted to talk about how wonderful it was, but I’ve just wasted half-an-hour trying to find a good picture of 15v, and not only did I fail to find one, but I lost the available time for posting.

There is a scan of the individual quadrants of the page at Medieval Tymes. The image of the upper right, Samson pulling down the pillars (Judges 23-30) gives an idea of how magnificent, crazy, funny, and moving these images are, but sadly gives no sense of the whole page, and the way that the four images interact. The Morgan Library itself has an on-line exhibition with eighteen full-page images: 23v gives a sense of both the violence and the artists’ freedom from formal restraint, and 27v shows the startling technique of allowing the figures to cross from one quadrant to another. Make sure to use the zoom feature, once you’ve got a sense of the page; the details on these are superb.

Sadly, 19v is only available from Medieval Tymes in bits and pieces; in that one Peninah actually leans from the upper right into the upper left in order to stick out her tongue at Hannah, which is even better because Peninah is already in the upper left quadrant, smiling and well-behaved.

Anyway, as I said, I’m out of time for now. But it’s wonderful stuff.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

March 8, 2008

Book Report: The Garden of Earthly Delights

Peter S. Beagle evidently wrote a book called The Garden of Earthly Delights, which is a sort of examination of the titular painting and several other works by Heironymous Bosch. Mr. Beagle is not an art historian, nor yet a critic. His grasp of the iconography is pretty good, but he rarely attempts to talk about the technical or formal aspects, other than to call them wonderful or brilliant. He restricts himself, mostly, to pointing out some of his favorite images from the multitude of mini-paintings within the big triptychs and delineating their significance.

This is too bad, because at the beginning of the book, Mr. Beagle talked about his own connections to the artist, how he came across the images (on pulp illustrators’ homages), and the connection in his youthful mind to Hiroshima and Auschwitz. I wish he’d gone on like that, talking about himself and his own reactions and connections to the art.

There are lots of art historians who know more about Mr. Bosch and his art than Mr. Beagle does, but few of them write as well as he does. In trying to write their book, he’s mostly just come up with a well-written but weak art history book. If they had tried to write his book, they would have come up with (one imagines) a poorly-written but strong art history book. If he had written his own book, he might have come up with something really powerful indeed.

The other thing to be a bit wistful about with this book is the images. Viking did a very good job, within the limitations of the book, but Mr. Bosch’s works cry out for a computer screen and a readers’ ability to zoom in and out on the high-resolution images while reading the text. It was hard for me to connect the details to the full images, to connect one group to another, or think about how its placement affects its meaning, or to go from one group to the one next to it or above it, rather than following Mr. Beagle’s (perfectly reasonable) scheme. Also, it would be good to be able to compare panels side-by-side, to compare versions of the Haywain or the Crowning with Thorns, or to compare one grotesque with another. If there is one area where you can argue that the book is obsolete, the presentation of detailed images is it.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

July 28, 2007

Topple the statues!

Possibly the best meme ever, courtesy of Tyler Green over at the Modern Art Notes blog: name three U.S. politicians and the works of art to which I'd like to see them chained (the reference is to Italy, and if you are not resident in the US, feel free to adapt to local conditions).

So. This is surprisingly difficult. Or at least, it’s surprisingly difficult to avoid cheap shots, such as chaining Dick Cheney to Slide Rock and then throwing art and veep into the ocean together.

  • I’d rather like to Senator Diane Feinstein to chain herself to Robert Arneson’s sculpture of George Moscone for a while. No particular political point, but boy, wouldn’t that be something?
  • Somebody has got to be chained to the Statue of Liberty, but who? Rudy Giuliani? Tom Tancredo? Alberto Gonzales? No, forget the Statue of Liberty, I want Mitt Romney to chain himself to Daniel Chester French’s statue of William Lloyd Garrison on Commonwealth Avenue: “I am in earnest -- I will not equivocate -- I will not excuse -- I will not retreat a single inch -- AND I WILL BE HEARD”. Hee hee.
  • I’d like the eventual Democratic Party nominee for President next summer to chain herself (or himself) to Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms.
  • Your turn, Gentle Readers.

May 3, 2007

Puff Piece: Joseph Smolinski

My discovery today at Wadsworth Atheneum was an artist named Joseph Smolinski. He had three pieces showing. One was a version of the Charter Oak that would probably only be funny to Connecticutters. Such as Your Humble Blogger, who found it hilarious. The second is a set of four images of a tree in the seasons, ranging from Spring to Winter. I liked that one a lot, too. And the third was a digital video called Tree Turbine (the artist has only some early work for it on line), about, well, tree turbines.

As of the moment, Mr. Smolinski does not have a slash-co2 page. I think that artists will have awesome slash-co2 pages, don’t you?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

February 4, 2007

Puff Piece: Ooh, shiny!

Your Humble Blogger spent much of yesterday at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Actually, Your Humble Blogger spent much of yesterday mocking the MFA,B, which richly deserves it, what with their pitiful collection of contemporary art, their baffling insistence on blockbuster shows of not-art, and their risible wall-text. And their delusions of grandeur. Great salad bar, though.

Actually, the thing about the MFA,B is that for all my animosity, I am forced to admit that they have a magnificent collection. Their ancient Greek stuff, for example, particularly the vases, is astonishingly good, and it is incredibly instructive to spend twenty minutes or so looking at a couple of dozen painted vases, each slightly different from the others, giving a picture of the range of subject matter and style, while also making clear the similarities, each to the other, particularly in subject matter and style. Admittedly, you have to really want to find this marvelous collection, because it’s in a darkened corner at the end of a corridor that’s been blocked off for construction. But it’s worth it. And there are more wonderful things: a set of breathtaking works of Arabic calligraphy in marbled paper; a gaggle of Roman heads, of various times and styles; enough Egyptian stuff to satisfy any ten-year-old boy, including, yes, mummies; some insanely lovely Asian scrolls; a tiny ivory Christ as Good Shepherd from Asia with the cutest little-widdle sheep, more like hedgehogs, really; a magnificent Titian-haired St. Catherine, with actual Titian hair; all that Impressionist crap people seem to like; an enormous Medieval Spanish portal, with all the stonework around it; a Sol LeWitt they are hiding somewhere. So, you know, I mock it because it deserves the mockery, but I still go, when I can.

But that’s not what I’m here to puff today. No, I mention the MFA,B because at the moment the cavernous West Lobby space is occupied by a piece called “Artificial Rock # 85”, by Zhan Wang. It’s a big, shiny scholar’s rock made of stainless steel. Now, I walked in to the lobby and went “ooh, shiny scholar’s rock!” and knocked over a bunch of old ladies to go over to it (this is a joke, for those of you unfamiliar with Bostonian Old Ladies in Bombazine; one would hesitate to attempt to knock over a BOLiB with an earthmover. Many of these are the same old ladies who were BOLiB when Francis Dahl wrote about how the Nazis couldn’t knock them over with a Panzer), and it was pretty cool, but when I had a chance to look at it over a long period, I found myself a trifle discontented with it. I liked the idea of it, but it somehow didn’t quite work for me.

So I’m not here to puff the Artificial Rock # 85, either. Now, it happens that a friend of my Gracious Host (and an acquaintance of mine, as well, who I would be happy to be friends with if the opportunity really arose) recently started a blog, on which she posted some lovely photos of scholar’s rocks. Real ones, you understand, not shiny ones. Which reminded me of the Artificial Rock (# 85); I don’t know if Kam would particularly like it, but I wanted to mention it to her. So I decided to do a little internet searching, and immediately found out the name of the artist, which I had of course forgotten, and several pictures of shiny scholar’s rocks, including one at the DeYoung in Golden Gate park, one that’s at the Kennedy Center and one that is evidently in Shanghai.

And then those links led me to a shiny floating island and a shiny rock in a stream, both of which are very cool and, um, shiny, and an installation that evidently just closed up at Williams of a shiny cityscape that looks very cool indeed. And the flickr tag for Zhan Wang has a bunch of pictures of what appears to be a very disturbing installation at the 2006 Shanghai Biennale. Some of those pieces look much cooler than Artificial Rock # 85 (“I thought it would be a series of three—four, at the most"). But that’s not what I’m puffing.

What I am puffed about, at the moment, is that the internet exists. And more than that, that it has accumulated this vast amount of trivia. Much of it searchable. Ten years ago, the internet existed, more or less, but if I had come across something that I was vaguely interested in, a search like that would have been almost totally useless. If I had happened to see a big shiny Scholar’s Rock at more or less the same time that a friend’s friend expressed interest in scholars rocks, I would have been unable to quickly find out the name of the artist I had seen, and probably wouldn’t have bothered mentioning it, because it wouldn’t have been worth it, just to say that there is a big shiny scholar’s rock in Boston at the MFA. And then, I wouldn’t have known that this friend of my friend had an interest in scholar’s rocks anyway.

For all the annoyances of the internet and the bizarre nearness of trivia, it’s terrific to me to have this odd coincidence of interest lead me to a quick, annoyance-free introduction to a handful of pieces of art that I would likely never have seen. Even though I don’t think all the stuff is fantastic, even though I’m not an instant fan. It’s just a nice thing, a new bit of interesting stuff for me, a tasty treat in the box.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

November 27, 2005

Puff Piece: Xing Ped

Your Humble Blogger is back, having had an excellent Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is in some way all about wresting our attention from those things that get up our noses to those things we happen to actually like, yes? So here’s a Puff Piece, since we haven’t had one in a while, about guerilla artist and pedestrian activist Xing Ped. Honestly, I don’t know much about Mr. Xing, who is (or perhaps was) incredibly reclusive. A lot of what I do know is unverifiable anecdote; a lot of people claim to have known or even worked with Mr. Xing, but it seems unlikely to me that he would have confided in them. Anyway, it’s the work that counts. The most likely bio, based as much on conjecture as reliable evidence, is that he was a war orphan of a Chinese soldier and a Korean mother, adopted by a Canadian nurse and brought up somewhere in lower Canada or northern US. The influence of Pop Art and minimalism is obvious, but the stories about his relationship with Donald Judd are probably false. It’s tempting to imagine them on a cross-country car trip, the older man holding forth on materials, on sites, on consumerism, on galleries ... and then the crash outside Marfa and the youngster’s vow never to drive again. Still, there’s no evidence of that, nor of the similar stories about collaborations with Jasper Johns, Yoko Ono or Sol LeWitt. The story of the Marfa crash, particularly, seems to contradict the story about his adoptive family being killed when they were crossing a busy intersection and a car failed to stop. Of course, there’s no evidence for that, either. Or, really, for the youthful flirtation with First Nation religions that led to the early site-specific works.

It was those works—the two-dimensional yellow diamonds, all flat surface, the stenciled words and images, the roadside locations—that really started Mr. Xing’s career. It’s hard to imagine how startling the now-iconic deer or moose would have appeared at the time. Just the silhouette, and the name of the animal (and the stenciled signature) in easy-to-read large sans-serif letters. Later he eschewed the images for short, passionate slogans, making my own favorite pieces. The thing that makes the works powerful is the contrast between the style of the work—cold, industrial, manufactured—and the passion of the pleas to ‘End Road Work’ or ‘End Construction’. And, of course, the siting, by the side of the road, always near some of the ubiquitous construction, the attempt to make the roads wider, longer, faster.

In fact, these later works without Mr. Xing’s name affixed are even more powerful for me, because they play with the whole question of identity. After the seventies ‘happenings’ where he spray-painted the ‘graffiti’ (just his name, in all caps) on the road near some dangerous intersection, his legions of followers have taken to stenciling his name on roads in cities and towns across America (oddly, in Canada they put his family name last as if it were a Western surname). The strong association of his name with dangerous intersections and bus stops carries over to his later, unsigned work, to the point where the signs in proximity to the ever-increasing roadways evoke the danger to pedestrians as well, and even while driving, I find myself raising a fist and shouting his name, as if it had been printed right on the sign.

Of course, after so many years, it’s not clear whether Mr. Xing is still active, or whether he has retired from the active supervision of the team of assistants he had delegated to do the actual siting. He had always taken the minimalist rejection of craft to an extreme, using geometric figures, stencils and print to universalize the artworks. Like the conceptualists, he distanced himself from the actual production of the art. What was clearly his own hand was the placement of the signs and the graffiti, and he attempted to remove himself even from that by allowing assistants to choose the placement of the signs. Added to that, of course, was the work of ‘independent’ copycat artists, and of course many pedestrian-rights activists took his work as part of their cause. By removing his self from the works, he in effect multiplied himself; because it is impossible to tell whether a particular work is a “real” Xing Ped, all of them are and none. There is no artist, there is just art. And yet, when you see any of them—the most amateurish scrawl on a road near a school, or a flimsy canvas orange sign on the roadside—you take it for a Xing Ped, you say his name, you think about the other works (I haven’t even mentioned the marvelous Holzer-like installations where his stylized self-portrait alternates with a warning hand, or where the words WALK and DON’T WALK alternate in red and green like a contradiction incarnate) and, inevitably, you think of the place of walking and driving in our culture.

That’s the magnificent paradox. He removes himself from the work so that he doesn’t stand between the viewer and the (political) meaning, but the result is not that he disappears but that he grows larger, his name encompassing all the byways of the nation. Even if he has already died, and the studio now carries on making the works without any supervision at all, his influence is so strong that they are him, they work for him and he works through them, achieving a sort of immortality. There will always be Xing Ped; the endless construction demands Xing Ped; the children dodging traffic in front of approved Xing Schools grow up to be the drivers he excoriated but also to be the activists he still inspires.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,

Xing Ped
Xing Ped, Self-Portrait, date unknown.