Sunday, November 26, 2006

Symbolism for Turkeys

Something I heard on the Victory Garden has been running through my head lately. The host, Michael Weisan, started a segment on African Violets by saying something like, "Most of us, when we think of African Violets, think about them as being the kind of plant our grandmothers would have had."

He went on to argue against the idea, but I missed the redemption of the African Violet because I was stuck spinning in the introduction, saying to myself, "African Violets are for grandmas? Now there are fashions in plants?"

(This violet is called "Absinthe House", according to the African Violet Society of America.)

It shouldn't surprise me. I know that every field has its fashions. There are probably fashions in taxidermy. Some squirrel stuffer is probably saying to his younger brother right now, "I was stuffing squirrels way before everyone else started doing it. You know, before it was cool."

The good news is that this squirrel is not dead. The bad news is that he probably votes. Sugarbush Squirrel.

But hearing it said that way, as an offhand statement of fact preceded by an assumption that the general public was in agreement on African Violets...It struck me as a sign of things gone terribly wrong. It brought to mind the impending apocalypse. Or something. I felt a squirm in the pit of my stomach that reminded me of the first time I heard tuna melts referred to as white trash food. I love tuna melts, and resent aspersions cast upon them, but I have no specific attachment or revulsion towards the African Violet. What galled me is that African Violets are nature. And nature, I would like to think, is not about trying to make us look young or old.

This violet is called "Edgy".

Nature is fundamentally not about us. It is what it is. And while we've always used it as a means of expression, what we usually express is a sense of ourselves as godlike creators who have tamed the noble savage that is the natural world.

Exhibit 1

Exhibit 2

I can understand the impulse to control nature. We are, after all, puny furless creatures who frequently get killed by weather, fire and disease- but it does seem to me that the way we use symbols to define ourselves has gotten entirely out of hand when we start talking about what our houseplants say about us.

Because if our houseplants are talking, what on earth does our dinnerware say? We know our clothes talk about us (God help the person who wears sweatpants on a first date), but do we know what our plumbing says? Are those below the sink s-bends completely passe?

I have a problem with the fact that I know the new trend in sinks. I know what designer I'd like to have made my tape dispenser. I know that the designer who makes the really ugly clothes is actually good-ugly, even though it looks just ugly-ugly, because it's funny-ugly, and signals being really super in-the-know. I do not want to be a walking catalog. I think it's creepy, and I think it's demeaning.

I think we're commodifying ourselves: that we have so little time and so few forums in which to develop a real sense of value that we annex everything around us into a vast whirling theater of identity. It's very 1980's, very Jenny Holtzer, very Barbara Kruger. The same part of me that thinks that the African Violet fashion is a sign of the coming apocalypse thinks that we've developed a post-capitalist language that uses objects as a stand-in for actual identity. Want to look smart and artistic? Have I got the sink (neighborhood, house, garden) for you.

It's shorthand for real relationships, for the development of real ways to mediate identity. We use our objects to read things about each other, and as long as we all agree that there is a language of objects and that they do reflect character, or at least certain aspects of it, the system works. That might be well and good, except that we seem to be going, dare I say, apeshit about this lately. We're like little kids learning that blue is for boys and pink is for girls- but we're talking about plants. And What Your Food Says About You.

And really- must we characterize everything in terms of ourselves? Can't we leave some parts of the world free of our synaptic impulse towards identity politics? Some place where things can be left wild, without interference, alone and symbol-less? There should be an identity free zone. Something like Antarctica- a place where rabbit and turkeys can live in peace without people throwing holidays and assumptions about their fertility and dumbness at them...

Turkey Tail Fungus. It's the new black.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

I Hope My Art Gets a Tan

I just finished a new piece called The Thing About Money. It's going to Miami to the Aqua Art Fair, where it will be exhibited by Gallery Joe, along with Declaration and Not Properly Respecting Otherness.

You can see a bigger picture by clicking the image above.

The text reads very differently when you get up close. There are clouds in the background that contain a whole section of text that elaborates and casts doubt upon the main statement.

I've decided to focus on making these text drawings for a while. It's very satisfying to work in this hybrid language of words and images. I love that I can make subplots and digressions just by writing in smaller letters, and I like the idea of making jokes, statements, and dogmas that don't sit quietly in their proper category.

It's fun to show the work to people because they read it one way when they're far away then another way when they get to the arrows. The arrows say "Absolutely Nothing", and they come before the words "Perfectly Clearly." So watching people view the piece has the effect of telling them a joke.

I'm also really into the puffed up Victorian grandeur of the way I'm making the main statements: it makes the homely parts of what I write extra funny to me.

There's a way in which fonts work as voices. These pieces can have multiple characters who say things outside of my voice, and I can express different levels of authority by using different kinds of writing. I like that I can contradict myself and be divided about an issue or an idea in one piece. Making these pieces is like taking a cubist approach to a statement: there's a central proposition and several million ways of attacking that idea within the body of the drawing.

There's something very satisfying and human about being able to express doubt and certainty in this way. I like doubt. My declaration piece is all about doubt, but I think I might have to do another piece about it.

That said, I'm delighted that Becky Kerlin of Gallery Joe likes this new work enough to take it to Aqua. There's nothing like the removal of doubt, either.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Why, Karolina Sobecka, that's who, Mr. Blake.

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

-The Tyger
William Blake

This amazing digital tiger ran around San Jose recently. It was made by one Karolina Sobecka, and there are beautiful videos of the piece on her site. The woman's a genius.

My friend Wes Kim pointed me to the tiger, and he's a genius too: check out his movie Vision Test. It's based on the results of a survey done by the Committee of 100, and has won several awards in film festivals, as has another great film he made called Profiles in Science, which features Wes himself demonstrating Chungian Motion. I personally would like to see Chungian Motion sliding all over the buildings in San Jose, but I think we're lucky that William Blake never heard of it.

Friday, November 10, 2006


I keep staring at the New York Times map of the midterm election wins as if it's a magical icon of faith. One of those thirteenth century madonnas that was thought of as not merely a painting, but the embodiment of divine love.

Guido de Siena, Madonna and Child, c. 1270

I'm a very secular person, so I take my divinity where I find it. And right now "the thumping" does pretty well. For as long as I've had any idea of political life in this country I've known one thing: Democrats do not get out the vote at midterm. They are good hearted but lazy about everything but presidential elections, and because Republicans have a built in forum in which to organize (churches), they have a built in structure to get out the vote.

The last elections really depressed me. I knew smart people who did not vote because they thought Republicans and Democrats were all the same. When I think about this I get so angry I veer off into long winded mental speeches that involve explaining the difference between rattlesnakes, rabbits and garter snakes and I make myself ridiculous.

I didn't have any hope for the midterm elections. I was more deeply appalled by the reigning administration than I'd ever been at any other moment in my life, so I imagined other people were also angry, but I figured that we'd lose because this administration is so smart about spin.

Even Bush's language in defeat is good. Calling it "a thumping" makes him seem likeable. The administration's ability to blandly turn the focus of the talk about Iraq away from their mistakes to the Iraqis "taking responsibility" is mystifyingly impressive. He's one of those bullies who secretly fascinates me because they seem to have no conscience, no shame, and no ability to criticize themselves. I don't admire this quality, but I envy it. One wishes there were some possible combination of megalomaniacal, theatrically astute personal confidence and moral defensibility that we could elect next time instead of the weakness of the typical democrat, who lives with a conscientious awareness of the complexity of issues. I think Clinton had that combination. Anyone who saw his "I was a fat kid" speech on the night before the election knows what I mean.

This election seems miraculous to me because it overturned what had become, for me, essential truths. Articles, if you like, not of faith, but of pessimism. That Democrats were lazy about everything except presidential elections. That otherwise smart people could be so idealistic they could talk themselves right into giving up all the power they have, and that they regularly do this in great enough numbers to allow truly evil policies to flourish.

A couple of days ago I saw a young university woman ask her classmates to explain who Dick Cheney is. So it's not as if I'm about to banish all my pessimism, but it has been, as they say, dampened. But on that note, this is an amazing post election article.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Kelmscott Chaucer

Kelmscott Chaucer lives in the treehouse. If you walk in the front door of Temple University's Paley Library, you see what appears to be a rickety elevated fort built against the back wall of a large atrium. The building is standard issue 1960s concrete and glass institutional style, but the treehouse is a friendly wooden structure that looms over a bank of computer terminals in the atrium below.

My favorite person at Temple lives there. Thomas Whitehead, the head of Special Collections, is an ex letterpress guy who presides over the best collection of artists' books in the city. Going into the special collections room in the treehouse is like sneaking into the back room of a museum: there are amazing things everywhere you look: illuminated manuscripts, old woodblocks, books the size of your fingernail and the size of your torso. Not to mention sci-fi posters and pieces of type with the entire, apparently, Lord's Prayer carved on their tiny tops.

I see Thomas Whitehead once or twice a year when I take people to look at artists' books. The man has and knows everything. He shows us artists' books made of latex, soap, quilts, bras, and glass. He tells us to sniff the beautiful book from Vietnam that smells of the tobacco leaves that are used in the paper, and he once got out a can opener and opened one edition of the two books-in-a-can he'd bought so we could see what was inside. He's got a great collection of rare books, sci-fi and propaganda posters, as well as political literature from the sixties. And it's his job. He's up in the treehouse, preserving the culture.

Today I went to a presentation he gave on the Kelmscott Press Chaucer. This is a book by William Morris' Kelmscott Press, and it's insanely gorgeous.

This is William Morris. He also wrote books himself, like this one, The Story of the Glittering Plain or The Land of Living Men.

The Chaucer is illustrated by Edward Burne Jones, a Preraphaelite painter, with initials and borders designed by Morris. There's plenty of information about it on the web, but I thought I'd post some pictures it in case anyone has not had the good fortune to run across it yet. Or wants to know what I want for Christmas.

(Click the image above to enlarge.)

Every illustrated page has these incredible borders, and the type is hand-set with beautiful elaborate initials.

(Click to enlarge)

It's in English, and lots of libraries have them. If you live in San Francisco you can go to the public library's rare book collection and just check it out for a few hours. They give you white gloves and watch you to make sure you're not taking out your scissors or anything, but you can sit there and just read it. You could come back every week and read a chapter. (I asked. And then, sadly, I moved to the East Coast.)

(Click to enlarge)

The Kelmscott Chaucer is an amazing testament to, among other things, the value of work.

These are the printers working on the Chaucer.

I've been working on another very slow, large drawing lately, and I'm really enjoying it. I was thinking today, as I took five hours to shade in the ends of two banners and some drapery, that I really love work. That work in itself has become a value to me. I don't mean that any work is its own reward- any ex-temp knows that's not true- and it's not that I actually enjoy every moment of working. Nor do I count my job as work. But work directed towards something one loves is a powerful thing. Work on art opens up artistic possibilities. I feel, lately, like it's possible to access the kinds of visual gestures and bravado that were common in other eras if I remove the pressure to make my art quickly. It might be that given enough time, I really can do fake Victorian engravings with my ballpoint pen.

It's tremendously liberating to commit to that endeavor- to work much longer than I usually would on making something look good, even if that seems fantastically inefficient. It feels rather revolutionary too- there's something neat about putting so much effort into transforming a single piece of paper with the disposable pen I bought at Office Depot.

If I give myself five hours to spend working on carefully shading my drapery, I can get a really good looking image. My image looks old fashioned, and that's partly because I'm giving the piece the time that people used to put behind their work. I don't mean thinking time. I mean hand on the paper time. Work.

It's not a new impulse. But I think it's a good one.

There are some great large Morris images here, courtesy of one Florence Boos at the University of Iowa, who also happens to be president of the U.S. chapter of the Morris Society, and there's also a good article on the Kelmscott Press Chaucer here.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

The Smartest Dog in the World

In case anyone who knows me has failed to notice, I'm obsessed with animals. It's a long standing obsession, and I'm particularly interested in the ways we draw the line between humans and animals. Which might explain why I have an old children's book called Bob, Son of Battle. It's all about the noble dog Bob's noble exploits, but really I just bought it for the cover.

It's pretty much unreadable because a lot of the people talking about Bob are doing so with multiple apostrophes in each word.
"Yo' may well say that," cried Tanitnas in a kind of
ecstasy. "A proper Gray Dog, I tell yo'. Wi' the brains
of a man and the way of a woman. Ah, yo' canna beat 'em
nohow, the Gray Dogs o' Kenmuir!"
But forget the grey dogs of Kenmuir. Today I heard about Faith.

Faith is a helper dog to a Ms. Leana Beasley. But here's the deal: when Ms. Beasley took the wrong medicine Faith started barking at her. Then when she had a grand mal seizure Faith pushed her into seizure recovery position, knocked the phone off the cradle, pushed the 911 speed dial button with her paw, and barked at the operator when she heard a voice.

I heard the tape of the 911 call. It goes something like this:

"Hello, Emergency!"
"Hello, can I help you?"

The dog definitely waits for the human to stop speaking before replying with a bark. When the ambulance came, Faith looked out, recognized the police, and unlocked the door. Thus saving Ms. Beasley's life.

Faith got an Award for Canine Excellence, but really, I think someone should write a novel. Or at least make a painting of Noble Faith dialing the phone.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Operation Iraqi Freedom Document Portal

I try to keep this blog focused on things that are driving my artwork, but there are some times when one loses focus. When one's vocabulary shrinks to the quickest way of expressing one's emotion. When having a public forum in which one can post a picture of McCauley Culkin at six years old with his pink hands slapped to the side of his enormous open mouth and write "OMG!!!!" over and over again seems like a really good thing. When one feels that the world would understand, and in fact needs to. I'm sure this will be all over the news later, and that the rest of the world will be doing that same face soon, but I just got the news, and I feel compelled to add my useless voice to the storm of voices that will be offerring intelligent political analysis of Operation Iraqi Freedom Document Portal soon. Which is to say this:

Oh holy crap! Can we please, please, send this administration home?

Also. If I know you and you don't vote I'm going to hit you.