Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Okay, I lied.

I wasn't done. It needed bugs. I finished and photographed the skeleton painting today.

It's up on the site, but it still looks a little weird online. Color issues drive me crazy on computers- my camera alters my color as soon as I take the picture, then my computer, which is a mac calibrated to look like a PC, messes it up further, then I optimize it for the web, so it looks even worse. Makes me crazy- being an artist is all about picky image control, and putting anything on the web is all about surrendering to everyone else's weird monitor colors. But Thom has been reading a book about wine, so we've been talking about the problem of describing sensory information accurately all day long. Which makes me inclined to be philosophical about it. It could be that putting artwork on the web is just a physical manifestation of an eternal problem. I can extend the metaphor. Maybe just like everyone's monitors are fucked up, everyone's eyes are different. Seeing my work messed up on some uncalibrated monitor over the internet could be taken as a metaphor for the experience of seeing through the eyes of someone who really doesn't get it, or who is one of those people (you can tell I hate these people- forgive me) who sees a lot of bright colors and claims that it hurts their eyes.

Of course, eyes work better than monitors, but I'm not sure brains do. My own does not. I can't tell if a painting is good or bad until I've forgotten it. I learned long ago that the best experience of making a painting can result in the worst painting ever, and vice versa. Making this painting has been, sadly, maddening. My studio is about 95 degrees, my stencils have been falling off and sticking to my shoes, and I'm suffering from what a friend of mine who had been through more therapy than should be humanly possible called "resistance". When she was stalling, not wanting to do some unpleasant task, she called it resistance, which I loved. I have resistance to lots of things. I particularly had resistance to working in my hot sticky studio wearing a sweat filled respirator. It's been a hideous process. So until today I pretty much hated the painting. But that I'm done and I've swept up all the stencils I kind of like it, and I'm excited about what I'm going to do next.

I can't talk about that yet- I think talking about what one is doing next is a form of action that can easily replace actual work- but I did find another great podcast to talk about. Today I listened to Dave Hickey interview Rauchenberg. Which, you know, sounds good. And it is, but it's also REALLY DISTURBING. I highly recommend it. Both of these august cultural treasures have the most demonic baboon laughs I've ever heard, and they giggle nonsensically through the whole interview. It's insane. It's on this page- scroll down for a guaranteed art star freakout experience.

Monday, May 29, 2006

The romantic skellington

I'm done with a new large piece, which I will post on my site soon. This is an odd piece for me: it's got a person in it and a skeleton- two new characters for me, at least in painting: I've been drawing skeletons and people in ink for a long time now, and I have been doing skellington watercolors all spring.

I'm calling them skellingtons for some reason that I imagine will come to me in a year or two from now when I reread something I've forgotten. I think I picked it up from Dickens. The internet tells me that there is a Tim Burton character called Jack Skellington, but that's news to me - when I think "skellington" I see it in spelled out, letter by letter, in whatever font Penguin press uses for its classic paperbacks. It's stuck in my head, and the word rings in my skull as I'm painting in a fiddly nose hole or eye socket with my watercolors.

More diligent searching online turns up this quote from the Pickwick Papers.

"Your servant, sir. Proud o’ the title, as the Living Skellington said, ven they show’d him."
"[H]e’s the wictum o’ connubiality, as Blue Beard’s domestic chaplain said, with a tear of pity, ven he buried him."
"Wotever is, is right, as the young noblemen sveetly remarked ven they put him down in the pension list ’cos his mother’s uncle’s wife’s grandfather vunce lit the king’s pipe with a portable tinder-box."

It takes a little rereading to get the sense of it, but it's pure Dickens.

Dickens is a hero of mine. Which sounds pretentious to me as I write it, because who - at least who among those who have read David Copperfield and heard Mr. Micawber call out a "Heep of Infamy" - does NOT have Dickens as a hero? Having Dickens as a hero is so ordinary that it's like admitting that Jesus is one's personal savior. If one has a personal savior, who else would it be? Ones eyes glaze over at the very words. It's like telling someone you like cake. Thom and I used to play a game of trying to have the most boring possible conversations: we would invariably end up extolling the virtues of toast and rolling around laughing at ouselves.

There is considerable cultural incentive to pretend that ones' hero is someone far more obscure that Charles Dickens. Were I younger and more insecure I might pretend Arjun Appadurai was my hero, or Oleg Grabbar, or, for that matter Florine Stettheimer. The problem is that I'm not all that young and I just don't care- Dickens is a genius, and he's a genius who wrote in such a relentlessly accessible way that he falls out of favor with academics fairly regularly. I have the demented conviction that one could make a graph of when Dickens was and wasn't in favor and that it would correspond to the rise of dangerous political convictions. Dickens made his career showing people how not to be elitist without sacrificing their minds: it's possible to read David Copperfield as a treatise on the subject, if one can get away from that line about Uriah Heep.

The thing that is both right and very wrong with Dickens is that he's a romantic. This can get annoying, as when the dying wife of David Copperfield tells him to go marry the Other Woman, but it's what keeps him absolutely stringent about making the reader care about people from every social class. He doesn't make everyone noble and likeable- the characters that are those things are often the least interesting characters in the books- but he scatters the round and flat characters throughout the world as he sees it. If he were writing today, there'd be the good soccer mom and the bad humanitarian, as well as the noble prom queen, the good president and the evil Green Party candidate. He's disorienting, and he encourages one to be disoriented oneself.

He's appealing in the same way Jane Austen is because he proposes a difference between what you think and what you say. One can think Mr. Micawber is hilarious, and save up the funny things he says to tell a trusted friend, but one can't make him feel ridiculous, or say he is. It's a morally driven universe, and it asks the reader to extend the freedom of their intellect as far as they want without losing sight of the fact that while all characters are definitely not created equal, there are no reliable guideposts to read by except those common, boring values like good hearts and kindness.

That's what I mean by being a romantic. There's somthing revolutionary about asserting something boring, or common, instead of something interesting but wrong. Painting skeletons- even while calling them skellingtons in my head, demands a certain romanticism. The allegory of death is by nature romantic, because the symbolic depiction of death is a luxury. It feels transgressive to paint skeletons in a way that doing grim pictures of diseased corpses wouldn't be. If I was doing that kind of art I could claim the luxury of truth instead of the wholly fictional construct of the skeleton. Which is a symbol we're all more familiar with from Halloween than from anything else, fat luxurious bastards that we are. But being blunt about death strikes me as somehow anti-romantic too. Isn't it romantic to assume that we all would rather face the truth than a decorative metaphor? To assume that facing that kind of truth in art makes us better people anyways? I have seen hideous photos of corpses done by an artist that I found very impressive when I knew her, and I remember that the pictures made me nearly ill, but I'm not sure that that experience was particularly valuable. We all, after all, get there, and in the meantime- what? Fiction, I guess.

I'm going to keep working with the skeleton as long as I can stand it, playing out this impulse come hell or high water, letting the blank page of the skeleton stand for death as broadly and metaphorically as possible until I'm sick of it. Because as I was painting this intensely Victorian looking, decorative, romantic painting today I thought, "Isn't it romantic to say one is not romantic?" I think it might be.

Woodcut from ‘Hortus Sanitatis’, (‘Garden of Health’), printed by Johann Pruss in Strasbourg in 1497

David Bailly
Dutch, 1584-1657

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Official Things of the Thing Day

So I'm still working away on a new huge piece, and there's not much to say about it because at this stage of the painting it's all endless cutting of stencils and spraying of large blocks of color. I think the fun part will start tomorrow, but right now I'm in pre-fun, surviving on podcasts and, after I'm too tired to work, funny things I'm picking up from other people's blogs.

And of course from Thom, who started the morning off right by announcing that it is national turtle day. Which means, of course, that we must all honor Janet, the official Slugfest Printmaking tortoise.

Janet is a sulcata tortoise, and she lives at Slugfest in a very nice cage that has a sign on it that says "Mi casa no es su casa" and a disco ball. Sulcatas are the most exciting tortoises, but they are exciting in a very slow way. They love flowers and bright things, hate other tortoises, do not reveal their genders until they are three years old and live (in the wild) in vast underground tunnel systems. They adore watermelons and grapes (which are not good for them), and they can live for 75 years, during which time they very slowly turn into 250 pound tunneling machines who will do anything to get to a flower, including, if need be, digging through the foundation of your house. So I view the adoption of National Turtle Day as a wise gesture, and hope Janet will be placated by the attentiveness of our national leaders.

Turtle day seems to have inspired other legislators to pay tribute to the animal kingdom as well, although I'm pretty sure it's not motivated by exactly the same far-sighted placatory motive.

Delaware just adopted the pug as the official state dog .

This pug news comes to me from mammascro, on livejournal. Elsewhere on livejournal a chicken jumped.

I think it's aiming its gesture at the legislature.

I listened to a bunch of random interesting podcasts while I was painting, including a speech by Hillary Clinton at Princeton, who sounded vaguely presidential, but in that weird Dukakis way; someone has apparently been telling her to slow down her speech to the rate where she sounds barely alive. She was clearly trying to threaten the Palestinian people into not electing Hamas, which made me wonder what on earth I'm doing with my life. I hardly EVER try to influence the Palestinian elections.

Even odder were today's' librivox recordings. Librivox is a great idea: it's a site where people volunteer to read parts of books that are in the public domain and post them online. So one can get lots of old free library books, read by a collection of strangers. Which is fun in theory, but hilarious in practice. Because you never know who you're going to get as a reader, and voice makes a huge difference to your experience of an audio book. For instance. Today I heard:
The Raven, read by someone who can not be using his real voice, and
Kipling's "If", read in such a way that one thinks one is a young Indian boy listening to his kind but stern father.

I also listened to The Hunting of the Snark, which I'd read a long time ago but forgotten about. It's so great. The introduction alone is worth the download:

"For instance, take the two words "fuming" and "furious." Make up your mind that you will say both words, but leave it unsettled which you will say first. Now open your mouth and speak. If your thoughts incline ever so little towards " fuming," you will say "fuming-furious;" if they turn, by even a hair's breadth, towards "furious," you will say "furious-fuming;" but if you have the rarest of gifts, a perfectly balanced mind, you will say "frumious."

Add to this the fact that Lewis Carroll randomly threw in a beaver as one of his characters and it all makes him my hero of the day.

Or, wait. It's National Turtle Day already... And he can't be the state dog (although I would be so proud if we'd adopt the Boojum). So, um, I solemnly declare that The Hunting of the Snark is the official Monkey Fur Blog Poem.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Rain in New York

I think there's a germ in Chelsea. It's making people weak and sickly, and in their weakened state they are taking their mental cues from their clogged up nasal passages, which make them feel beleaguered and misunderstood. They are becoming cantankerous and, truth be told, a little, well, demanding. They want orange juice, and for people to bring them things, and they hate everything. You bring them magazines and chicken soup and they dash it to the floor and yell at you that they have taken a turn to the vegetarian and they want nothing to do with your chicken soup and your middle-class cold remedies. They want oscillicosenum, and they want it from France. They hate you and they hate themselves and they wish you would take your pretty smiling face out of there and stop trying to cheer them up. They don't want your damned sunshine and quote unquote ideas, they want to sit around watching old Barney Miller and hating every minute of it.

It's best to leave them alone at times like this.

Which is to say that a random survey of this month's shows in Chelsea, taken between 2 and 5 yesterday afternoon in a rainstorm revealed a weird preponderance of art that seemed to be infected by a negative nostalgia and little else: there were paintings of family photographs with everyone's eyes gone all red and demonic, and ink pen drawings of mean cheerleaders from the seventies and giant paintings of old Doors album covers made to look stupid, stupid, stupid! I went up to Chelsea last month and saw tons of great stuff, so I'm hoping it's a phase. It feels like one. You can walk through the galleries and hear the art yelling, "I hate you, Dad! And I hate your stupid music and nobody understands me!"

But what can you do. Everybody gets a cold sometimes and no one behaves well under the influence of a malicious germ. Plus I hear the rents are going up, which is bound to weaken one's immune system.

There was some great stuff too: I liked the James Lee Bryars and Nicole Eisenman is up to some nice new tricks that are good to see. And there's a funny Basquatch/Dubuffet show at Pace that featured cow paintings. And there was a really lovely show in the back section of the Cue Art Foundation. Man, that was good. It was work by an artist named Valerie Hammond and it made me wonder what genius curator had picked up her work: it turns out the show was curated by Kiki Smith. Shows ta go you. Valerie Hammond's work is gorgeous and kind and humane and interesting: a marked contrast to the preponderance of superior stuffy-nosed art we saw in a lot of the rest of the galleries. Definitely worth a look- pictures don't convey the beautiful fragility of her pieces.

Hatshepshut at the Met was great too. Apparently around Hatshepshuts' time there was an Egyptian fad for seated sculptures in which the figure becomes a simplified block with a tiny indication of hands and feet on the top and bottom. Those were gorgeous and moving: I love the idea of the mix between written language and image in these.

And check out the feet on this chair from 1548 BC! Guess that caught on.

We also went to see Kara Walker's After the Deluge, which was gorgeous and sad. My mother just went to New Orleans for Jazzfest, and she told stories about driving through the outer districts at night. She said it looked like a war zone, and described seeing a house that floated off its pilings leaving everything inside a mess except a closet with neatly hung white shirts floating in the stream of the headlights. She talked about crowds of people at Jazzfest crying as they sang and the shock that you can see on people's faces as they are forced to really realize that the government does not care. The trash is still piled up to the second story windows and the National Guard is being deployed to the border to protect us from illegal immigrants. It's awful, and there's a sense of Kara Walker reacting to that obliviating pain in the exhibition. She made some new work and rifled through the Met's collections to make a sad poetry of objects that included this incredible Winslow Homer painting that somehow says it all:

(Click here to enlarge. )

Or maybe not all. Kara Walker also says this, which is more to the point.

It's hard to see this image on the web, but the smoke has ignots and silhouettes of African Americans and buildings and all kinds of devastation in it.

We couldn't see everything in this exhibit because yesterday's rainstorm had caused leaks in the roof of the contemporary section, which had caused the galleries to be closed off. One painting was removed and there were little wastepaper baskets catching the leaks in front of an Anselm Keifer, which had been half-covered in plastic in a funnily sweet kind of way. The scale of the Met makes you think that they'd have high-tech rain catchers and massive white-suited teams to protect the Keifer, but no: somebody's office lost their garbage can.

The last thing I saw at the Met was one of my favorite things: Florine Stettheimer's Cathedrals series is out again. I love Florine Stetheimer, and her Cathedral of Art is so funny and terribly eternal. Her work doesn't reproduce well, I've found, but next time you're in the met, go see Florine. She's amazing. She was very famous in her own time, was friends with Duchamp, wore fabulous outfits, and used cellophane, a newly invented material, to decorate her Manhattan apartment at one point. There's nothing not to love about her.

(This is a bad image of the work, but if you click the link above you can see it better.)

Friday, May 19, 2006

Podcasts for tender, artsy souls

I'm going up to NY again today to look around Chelsea and the Met and possibly the Whitney- the only thing that's positively on the agenda is that we need to see Hatshepshut at the Met. Thom (the beloved) has a way of knowing about things like Hatshepshut that never fails to amaze me. While there's a good chance that I might know that there's an Egyptian show at the Met with some pharaoh or other, Thom will have known it was coming months before it's on my radar and if it happens to come up in conversation he will be able to give me a rundown on the history of the specific pharaoh. And he's not even particularly interested in Egypt. I mean, he is- he's the force behind Hatshepshut being on the top of the art to do list today- but it's more about bikes, guitars, urban planning, cooking, gardening, the environment and everything else. It's like living with Wikipedia- the person.

Me, I need help to know about Hatshepshut, so I listened to the Metropolitan Museum of Art's podcast, which is narrated, weirdly enough, by Sam Watterson. He was in a Raiders of the Lost Ark movie, so I guess, um, it makes sense?

(Apparently she's sitting on the Ark of the Covenant.)

The met podcast was pretty fascinating, and since Wikipedia is still asleep and I'm loathe to get out of bed, I thought I'd copy the NY Times and make an entry about some fabulous podcasts I've found.

There's a New York Times article about museum podcasts today that lists a bunch of great podcasts I already know about. They talk about the great Metropolitan Museum of Art podcasts, but there also looks to be an interesting one at MOCA (conversations with Dave Hickey, Rauchenberg, Kentridge) and MOMA has one called "Think Modern" that records conversations with artists and critics as well. I'm stocking up for the drive to NY.

Hammer Conversations features artists, filmmakers and writers talking about their work. It's downloadable from the same site as KCET's Aloud at the Central Library program, which I've listened to a few times and like very much. You can download these from the websites I've linked to, but if you do have an ipod, it's easier to just search for them in itunes.

There's also the WGBH Forum Network, which has random talks on the kinds of geeky subjects I like to listen to during long hours of cutting out stencils. There's a really fabulous lecture called "Impassioned Experience: Art in a 4th Grade Classroom" that just kills me. It features a super-sincere British man analyzing photographs taken by fourth grades with the weight and gravity normally given to...Well, normally not given to pictures featuring Stephanie's fuzzy bunny. In Our Time is a consistently interesting show from the BBC that deals with art in a tangential way- they get panels of academics together with a cranky commentator to discuss Big Ideas in an accessible way- it's a good time.

I keep trying to like the Exit Art podcast, but the last one I listened to had verrry insider artsy pants tone that put me off. I can't handle Artdispatch for the same reason- it looks like it should be right up my alley, but the very tone of voice of the podcast narrator makes my hair stand on end. Which is pretty scary, because Artdispatch calls itself the voice of the art world. But I do love the portentious voice of John Ciardi, who NPR has republished from beyond the grave. His On Words with John Ciardi is my favorite podcast ever.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Thanks, nice airport people!

The Philadelphia Airport has a little blurb about my piece on their website- neat!

Sunday, May 14, 2006

To Blog or not to Blog

I thought I would write about the art I've been seeing in NY, but seeing so much art has made me want to stop spending time writing and reading blogs. I went to the Pierpont Morgan museum and saw handwritten manuscripts by Dickens (meticulously planned) and the Brontes (very tiny tiny writing about the kingdom of Gondor).

And I was knocked over by an incredible line drawing by someone I'd never heard of that I wish I'd made. Writing about art is nice, but writing like I want to write- writing that just says "Oh, it was so cool!" is not. Translations of admiration for a certain piece of art can't be communicated by utilitarian language- the best form of communication for enthusiasm about art is another art form. Maybe if I was a really inspired essay writer I could do it, but I'm not, and so I'll make some art,and in the meantime a shout out should do it. The shout out seems like the appropriate form: it precedes the work of art, expresses gratitude, and is louder than a dedication. So. A shout out to the Brontes! A shout out to Hoefnagel!

A shout out to the Piepont Morgan Library, and a big fat shout out to the people at Pace Editions, who were so freaking nice!

That I can write about, because the love wasn't so visual, or planted so deep- it was tail-wagging brain love. Pace Editions is the print shop for the Pace Gallery, and we went to see it because the people at the Pace Gallery are so fabulously classy and kind that they invited my mom and Druck, who run a printmaking studio, to come see the way they print editions for people like Chuck Close. The Pace printers were great fun- they paused their work to answer technical questions and show us the fabulous art that was hung all over the room and they let us poke a plate by Tara Donovan, who printed a pile of rubber bands to great effect- her rubber band compositions look fantastic: they look like drawings by Martin Ramirez.

They told us about some subtle little Terry Winters- looking prints that looked full of little bubbles- they were very beautiful, and it turns out they were made by Tara Donovan mixing bubble stuff with acid and transferring them with a straw to the plate.

Printmakers, if you haven't met any, are fantastic people. They are the artists you want to meet- I've been seeing previews for Art School Confidential all over the place, and in the manner of the great art school stereotype narrator, when I was in art school the stereotypes ran like this: painters are self absorbed and mean, sculptors are dumb, performance artists are crazy, ceramicists are fun and stoned and printmakers are....awesome. They're funny, down to earth, smart, work well in groups. Their very art form means they have to play well with others. Mine means I gas up a room and listen to whatever is in my own head for more hours than is good for me. Thus the damned blog. But I'm done now.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

I haven't posted lately because I'm in the middle of a whole bunch of experiments. I've done lots of new watercolors, some very elaborate drawings and I have started messing with some new ideas with the airbrush. The biggest experiment is this one: I'm trying to airbrush people. I almost always use animals AS people in my paintings, but I do draw people all the time, so I'm experimenting with doing it in paint. I'm liking the idea of developing a formal cast of characters that includes figures I use all the time: the badger, the Prevost's Squirrel, a pumpkin head...But adding a human in there causes problems. I stopped using human figures in the first place because they feel too specific, especially compared to an animal. A person in a painting doesn't look like a generalized actor in a play, they look like the artist, or that model the artist used, or that person. I used to make paintings of women. People always saw those characters as me, and weirdly enough they do NOT do that when I use a badger. It's not just that I want to avoid autobiography, it's more that I want to achieve a unversality- I want to verr towards the mythic rather than the specific. Using animals also allows me to make paintings that talk about gender without any sense of essentialism: a badger in a dress is always in drag, even if it's a girl badger.
Anyways, I'm trying to see if I can pull of a useable person character, and I'm working on a series of portrait studies. I'm hoping to come up with a set of faces that work as generalities somehow, but I'm running afoul of other stereotypes: I really want to use a skeleton figure, but I'm thinking I'll get accused of ripping off Day of the Dead characters. I also want to single-handedly dissociate the pumpkin head from Halloween. We'll see. I've started working on a drawing for a new large piece and I'm going to spend next week looking at art in NY with my mom and her partner Thom, who are really great artists if I do say so myself. Which I do.

Speaking of which, I went to see Shazia Sikander talk on Friday at the Fabric Workshop- she was amazing. Her work is great, she's a densely intelligent speaker, and she's unbelievably gorgeous. It's really insane.