Friday, June 30, 2006

Back in the saddle

In the last post I mentioned that I'd had to slow down...and today, finally, I feel like I'm back up to speed. I spent the morning and early afternoon taking stock of what I've done since April- I photographed a bunch of new drawings and figured out lots of things about where I'm going, what I'm up to and where I've been.

None of which has much to do with this painting, Where do We Come From, What are We, Where are We Going? by Gauguin.

While I was photographing my new drawings the whole blue jay family stopped by to flap around in the birdbath. They really get down in to the water- this is no dainty sipping like the sparrows do. The blue jays jump right in the middle of the deepest bath and splash their wings down flat on the water so that they wet all the plants within a four foot range. They put their heads under and smack their tails flat on top of the water and they come out looking like you'd put them in the washing machine. When they are done they wipe their noses nicely on the edge of a flowerpot twice, once each side, then repeat. When they are gone, the water is full of little red bug dots. I think they have some kind of bird lice that itches them, so I change the water faithfully.

After I finished photographing my work Thom and I gave ourselves the rest of the day to walk around the city- we walked from about 3 to 10 at night, with a break for a movie at the Ritz. Our legs are tired, but we feel refreshed and the fleas are off and our noses are nicely wiped.

We wandered through our favorite alleys, watched sparrows and mockingbirds hanging around Carpenter's Hall and had gelato at Capogiro Gelato which is the best, most amazing thing a person can do in Philadelphia on a hot day. Last time I went I tried Nasturtium flavored gelato, which was so good I didn't want to eat anything else all day for fear of diluting the taste on my lips. Today I tried a ginger sesame scoop and a cilantro lime scoop- two great tastes that taste really disconcerting together.

I love days like this. We poked our heads into various shops as we wandered around discussing what we've been reading. I just finished The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington. I had never read any Booth Tarkington, and I'm not sure I will read any more, but I didn't expect what I found. I thought he'd be a potboiler romantic writer, and he isn't- at least, that's not what he's good at. Booth Tarkington struck me as a brilliant essayist who had felt the need to graft his observations on to a really irritating romantic plot. He had a nastiness that reminded me of David Foster Wallace, but he was apparently very interested in making things seem universal: so imagine David Foster Wallace (minus the parentheses and footnotes) writing scripts for Disney. In committee.

The Magnificent Ambersons is, if you ignore the Ambersons, an interesting history of the effect of the automobile on class in America, and it's a fascinating look at changing cities in the early 20th century. There's a whole side theme about the colors that are used in houses as coal and automobiles become more common. People move from light clean colors to dark greens and browns because the soot is so bad they can't keep light colors clean. Apartments become far more fashionable than single family homes because they are easier to clean. As cars come into common use people move as far out of the cities as they can because the air quality is so bad because of the soot and coal. Old money lapses into obscurity as it fails to take account of the new dynamics of distance created by the car. It's also a poignant picture of the death of bicycle culture, which is close to Thom's heart.

Thom is reading Ivan Illich's Toward a History of Need, which was written in 1978. Both our books are, weirdly enough, responses to the problem of technology and culture. Thom's book sounds like a charismatic call for a return to lost craftsmanship in the face of the postindustrial age. It wants people to be more empowered to meet their own material needs. We're down with that, having just had our own chard for lunch, but it was interesting thing to talk about Illych's idealism in light of Tarkington's very clear sighted view of the cultural changes brought about by technology. Tarkington is not anti-technology. His anti hero, the most magnificent Amberson, is a wretched product of the class system that is born of the kind of pastoral existence that Illich seems to advocate. Illych's views push for a more natural existence, which is appealing, but he pushed Thom well past his comfort level. The man wants us to take back our lost abilities to make housing and to learn how to make thatched roofs and feed ourselves, which sounds good. But he thinks toilet paper is over hyped.

Which, of course, it is.

One of my neighbors has a truck with a bumper stickers that says "Cast off the Chains of Market-Hyped Consciousness." This cracks me up; it just seems so demanding. I mean, I pull my car in to the space behind his truck and I think," I have to cast off the chains of market hyped consciousness again? Today, as we were talking about how far we'd be willing to cast the chains, we went into a bar to play this great shuffleboard-like bowling game from the seventies.

The bowling game is in a bar called "Sue's" on third below market. It's a good time, and, speaking of market-hyped consciousness, for fifty cents it's a bargain of a good time. I learned what shuffleboard wax is like, which I love, and for five minutes or so I got absolutely obsessed with trying to shuffle a fake bowling ball/puck into some fake bowling pins more accurately than Thom. Who remembers playing this game with his father, who used to play for money when he was a kid. It was a fifty cent trip down memory lane.

But if you've got nine bucks you should go see Word Play. It's really great. It's a bit like Spellbound, which is to say that it's also great, but is not to say that it's imitative. If you need proof, click on "clips" and check out "Enigmatology." If you don't already have a crush on Will Shortz, you will, and you'll be better for it.

The movie makes the case for puzzles, and the case for puzzles is the same, in a certain light, as the case for a day spent wandering around the city when you know the hot weather is right around the corner.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Taking it easy. Or not.

For reasons I won't get in to, I've had to slow down a lot lately. I don't know if I strike people as particularly cheetah-like in my normal life, but once I am forced to move at a slower pace I start running marathons in my mind, planning ways to more effectively fill every minute with pouncing assaults on life.

Like this guy did.

Meet Joe Kittinger. On August 16th, 1960, he went up to the edges of the eath's atmosphere in a baloon. 102,800 feet.

But that's not even where things get crazy. You've got to watch this video. Trust me.

There are two good videos- this one, which is from the Kircher Society, which Lord Whimsey mentioned on his blog, and a longer, prettier version of the story that adds extra surfing excitement to Joe's jump in order to fill out three minutes of a music video.

It took Joe Kittinger 4 minutes and 36 seconds to reach the ground- the middle of the Arizona desert- where he did not break both his legs because he had another, bigger parachute that opened at 10,000 feet. He fell so fast he went faster than sound. So his scream must have hovered behind him in the thin air of the upper atmosphere. I'm just assuming he screamed, but he might not have. He seems to have been a steel balled kind of guy. He had tried a similar stunt before, in 1959, but that time it hadn't worked out so well, since his parachute got wrapped around his neck and knocked him out two seconds in. But that time he was only 76,000 feet up.

He went on to set lots of other records, volunteered to fight in Vietnam 4 times and eventually got caught. While he was a POW he decided to fly baloons around the world, which he did when he was released, a whole bunch of times. He was the first person to fly the Atlantic in a baloon by himself. During a 1983 baloon flight from Los Vegas to Franklinville New York, he dumped so much ballast that he landed in his undies.

I cannot even imagine how this guy takes it easy in retirement.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Baltimore, more more

On Sunday Thom and I took a day trip to Baltimore to see the American Museum of Visionary Art. It's a great museum: the whole sensibility of the place is incredible- it starts when you are outside, and you climb into a tree-fort sculpture and look out the window..

You can look through the hole at a huge kinetic sculpture that is made of tons of little windmills that turn and shift with the changing breeze.

Or you can stick your head out the window and make a dignified face.

There's also a beautiful tree.

And the place in covered in mirrors. Like this one that is reflecting my nose.

Inside the museum on the third floor there were these amazing paper cut pieces by Ku Shulan, nicknamed Monkey, who worked in a traditional form of Chinese paper cutting.

But not the usual traditional form of Chinese paper cutting, which is like this.

Ku Shulan's pieces in the museum are huge- one of them is about 9' tall, and they're all made of tiny overlapping shapes of paper that look like they were cut out with nail scissors. They're amazingly intricate, and one hopes she had lots and lots of exacto knives and a tricky way of sharpening her nail scissors. But no. Big scissors, says the wall text. It's astounding. This is her work.

These pieces don't reproduce well, and there are no big images to be found on the web, but they're incredible in person. All the color is collaged bits of shiny paper, and they are hugely detailed. And funny. Look at the cats in the center of the image.

There's a great story about Ku Shulan- apparently she was in a coma for several days, and her relatives were getting ready to bury her when she woke up. The first thing she did was to ask for a pair of scissors and declare herself the Goddess of Paper Cutting. (Own it, Monkey.)

If you want to see more there's a good article about her here, a pretty cheesy site about her here, and a French site with lots of images here.

The museum has avoided a tempting element of sensationalism that you find when you read about Ku Shulan on the web. She is all over the internet as someone who "lived in a cave." Which makes her sound like a paper cutting bear.

The museum has a picture of the cave, and it's nice. Very beautiful. It's a building style in her region, and it's nicer than this.

She came from the Shanxii region in Northwest China, and the caves, which are an ancient traditional form of dwelling in the area, are still occupied, and some of them are even hotels. They're not shacks. I'd live in one. ( And lest anyone think I'm kidding about being able to live in a cave, my apartment, which I share with innumerable rodents and Thom, is 9 feet wide).

I love the whole idea of that museum- I went there because I knew it would help get me out of my art funk by showing me, for instance, the 12' long replica of the Lusitania made out of toothpicks.

The place is fabulously inspiring. Most of the people in the museum are making art outside the margins, triumphing against adversity and taking refuge in visual creations that are incredibly, sometimes crazily, good. There's a funny dynamic at work with the wall text, though. It gets a little dizzying- all this great art, all this hardship. I got touch of vertigo when I read that one fabulous artist was both mentally retarded AND psychotic.

I don't like everything that's there, but I do like the vast majority of the work, and so I was really surprised when I came across some really beginner looking Photoshop pieces by an artist named Rosie O'Donnell. Surely, I thought, not THAT Rosie- and I read the wall text, which had a by now familiar narrative of growing up in hard circumstances including foster care and an emotionally unavailable father...and then a hit TV show.

Rosie was apparently inspired to make her first artworks after 9/11. This makes me a little bit nuts. I don't begrudge her the impulse to make art, but Rosie has been at it for five years. And it shows. Everyone else in the museum had to fight for the skills that the art world demands of them. Their hard lives don't justify their art, they just make their commitment to art more impressive. Rosie's work? Not so much. I really hope she gave them a lot of money, and I hope that they went temporarily blind when they were looking at those pieces, because otherwise this was a truly poor decision. A decision so bad that it merits an explanatory tag. Such as this one.

"The American Museum of Visionary Art was recently were struck by a plague. We had funding cuts, a mouse problem and flooding in the basement. No one was giving us money. The staff contracted mold related eye diseases and raccoons moved in. Our curator went blind. The night before the bank foreclosed on the place our curator groped her way outside and went on the street begging for funds. The architects were drawing up the plans for luxury condos on our site when the funding came in- we got a large gift from well meaning celebrity Rosie O'Donnell. The pieces you see here are an artifact of our gratitude to Rosie for saving our ass. They should not be considered art, but do adequately express our gratitude to Ms. O'Donnell, who is very rich and someday hopes to become an artist worthy of this museum. We wish her the best of luck in this endeavor. "

Oh well. I still love that museum, and I bet that there is some good green reason that that art is there. It's probably an equally tragic, but much less exciting story.

We had a little time after the museum to walk around the harbor and to pay a brief visit to the Walters Museum, which is free free free to people who are members of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The Walters looks great, but we didn't have enough time to see much. There's a great portrait of Mr. Walter's nobly mustachioed head sticking out above the door. That, my friends, is patronage.

When we got home I found that could not remember the names of the people who did the outdoor pieces at the Visionary Museum. I thought their website would allow me to cheat and look it all up when I got home. It didn't, but it did get me interested in the Baltimore Kinetic Sculpture Race. The race is an incredible event. I'm going next year, and you should too. The race features amphibious vehicles like these.

I want to enter. You have to be able to build something (no check) that can float (no check), ride through mud (no check), is human powered (no check) and looks good (check! Double check!). Any engineers out there with too much time on their hands want to build the amazing kinetic badger with me?

Post script The reason rodents feature largely in this post is that they are on my mind. We traumatized one the other night. This has nothing to do with art, but it's too funny a story to hold back. Here's the background: several years ago when we were traveling through Roswell, NM, Thom's lovely sister gave us Alien Autopsy, an extraterrestrial version of the old Operation surgery game. We keep the box under our bed in preparation for drunken alien surgery bouts with his sister. Last night we were woken up in the middle of the night by a really loud and terrifying scream. A mouse had nibbled on the box, knocked the little operation tweezers on to the alien liver and set off a scream from beyond the limits of the known universe. I assume it is now freaked out inside our wall somewhere, telling the other mice that They Are Out There.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

The Grandest Ville

I'm working on drawing a new large piece right now, and it's giving me more trouble than usual. I'm swimming around in doubt, erasing as much as I draw, not sure which impulses to trust, wanting to strike into new territory without giving up the parts of what I do that I'm still excited about. I'm trying to make up my mind if an animal, personified, is more expressively human than a picture of a person. I also want to know if animals and people can live together in my work: I'm afraid that the animals will lose their dignity if I let people in.

While I've been thinking about all this, fussing around in doubt, I discovered an amazing artist. Jean Ignace Isidore Gerard Grandville. (French, 1803-1847.) He was an illustrator and printmaker who wrote three Fabulous French books, all of which I will buy if I ever win the lotto. The one I really love is Scenes de la Vie Privee et Publique des Animaux. (Scenes from the Private and Public Life of Animals). I bought a print from this book this weekend. It's a very moving funeral scene involving an old and rheumy crow and his mourning wife and kids. I can't find an image of that print, but there are lots of other prints from this book available on the web, and I've posted images of some of them here.

The Art Guys did a series of fishing lures years ago that were similar to these: they had a lure that looked like a little museum on the end of a fishook.

These little ones are pretty awesome, but they're hard to see.

The problem that putting humans and animals together in one piece presents is that I want every character in my work to have equal agency, and I want to define the power relationships between them. Grandville gives his animals pets.

That one reminds me of my grandmother. Lots of his work seems to deal with power.

And cats. The prints are cheap, because apparently the book was quite popular and people have discovered that they can chop it up and sell it as individual prints. Which is a shame.

Another of his books, Les Fleurs Animees" which translates as "The Flowers Alive", was published in lots of languages. It's a lot lighter than the animal book, but there's some really hilarious incidental commentary. My sense of Grandville is that he's so broad that it's easy to miss how smart he is. His minor characters are always great.

(Note the little beetles in hats clibing up the stem of the flower.)

This print of Narcissus is which is what took me into the window of the print shop. Check out the newt.

And the mimosa's attendant beetle.

Goatleaf flower.


Flesh of Water


And, just when you thought these were getting a little predictable...The Wallflower.

There's another book that I don't know much about called Les Metamorphoses du Jour (Metamorphoses of the Day) that everyone seems to agree is the real masterpiece. I assume the first image in the post, with the composite creatures, comes from that work, and that this one does too..

Grandville also illustrated Robinson Crusoe and some other novels, and he was a big influence on Tenniel. Writing that makes me want to yell, "Of course! How could anyone NOT love these and want to make them themselves?" But hey. That's just me. I think everyone wants to read newspapers that look like this, too.

(This is an issue of Punch with illustrations by Tenniel- click to see it bigger.)

Don't they, though? I know she would. And I'm right with her.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Holy Crap! I mean Sanitary Gel.

Choose. Right now. This.

Versus this.

I just had a freaky experience. About a month ago I read Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, which is a severely depressing novel about clones who are raised to be harvested for organs. In Never Let Me Go, the clones are indoctrinated to think of themselves as "donors" and barely recognize that they've been shortchanged. It's maddening. They have plenty of chances to run away and don't because they are passive and depressed and have no connection to the outside world. It made me insane. The whole time I was reading I was like, "GET IN THE CAR AND DRIVE AWAY, YOU PASSIVE ASSHOLE CLONES!" (Exactly like.)

Then tonight I watched "The Island". Clones, raised to be organ donors. But in this one, the clones KICK ASS. They cause innumberable explosions, murder they people they were clones of, and free the other clones. They even have a gratuitous cliffhanger moment on the side of a skyscraper where they scream, "Never Let Me Go!" It was a pretty silly movie, but it was a good time. The clones in this movie got to ride high tech motorcycles, modernist speedboats, and had fashionable Puma tracksuits. In Never Let Me Go they just had doomed love and organ harvesting. Plus a creepy prep school and false dreams about their parents.

So does this mean I don't like art?