Sunday, November 08, 2009

True Story

I just finished this piece tonight. I'm still not sure how I feel about this one, but I'm excited because I think that the next piece I do will be really nice- I'm figuring out lots of technical things about how to work with these new materials. I'm using magic markers in addition to my usual ballpoint pens, and I love them to death.

This one is called True Story.

The little text on the left says "All our nonsense aside, one never quite expects to feel this way." Then below that there's a cockroach saying, "Much less talk about it." Below that there's another bug saying "Much less make art about it."

Right above the dove heads there is a pair of ants: one is saying, "To preserve appearances" and the other is saying "We keep mum about feelings. (Dumb.)"

The rest you can read for yourself.

Or maybe not. The tiny text says, in pink, "Must we stick to" and then in black, "deep words about superficial things and superficial words about deep things."

One of my teachers in grad school was the incredibly charismatic poet and art critic Bill Berkson. I remember distinctly that he once said that there were two kinds of people- those who were interested in people and those who were interested in things. The latter was preferable- the distinction was framed in terms of being interested in art or being interested in gossip. I tried hard to give the impression that I was interested in things because I was totally fascinated by Bill Berkson. (As had been, it was rumored, Bianca Jagger, so I was in good company.) In any case, his offhand remark has not aged nearly as well as he had, and this piece is, among other things, my rebuttal, twenty years later. (Although I won't love him forever- that part is about the baby bird.)

You can see bigger images here.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Reading the birds

Thom has been trying to get me to go to the Quirinale hill near our house to see the birds swarming at sunset, but so far he's failed because I'm always working in the studio too late, trying to grab the last of the good light. But tonight he dragged me outside to the river, and just looking down the Tiber towards the hill was incredible. The starlings here are skywriters, and they give new meaning to the old stuff about reading the flights of birds. If birds write like this in the sky every night, what kind of moron would NOT think it meant something?

Tomorrow's mission is to get to the Quirinale hill at the right time. Thom says the birds are so dense there that they block the view to St. Peters as if they're weather.

I'm also going to some more incredible churches tomorrow. I've pretty given up on posting about all the churches I visit because a) taking pictures in churches is problematic: it's usually forbidden and when you are allowed it's often way too dark to get anything good and b) there is already plenty of information about the churches of Rome online. Also c) half the time I go to a church I think I need to go back again. Sometimes I go when there's a mass, or it's the wrong time of day or I need to get better pictures or see some part of it that's closed or something. I've tried 4 times to get in to San Franceso di Sapienza, and by gum, I will. Because this is the outside!

No big whoop, you might think. But I protest: whoop. Look closely at the tower.

This (below) is another one of the churches I need to go back to, St. Carlo alle Quatro Fontane, by Boromini. Boromini was supposed to be buried there, but he killed himself and so the plan was cancelled: in the bottom of the church there's a wonderful staircase that he designed leading down to a very sad empty crypt.

It's beeee-utiful inside, too: here's the view looking up at the dome.

I have to go back there for sure because I need more pictures: there are the apartments of a saint upstairs; you pay a euro to a woman who is clearly auditioning for the part of Dracula's housekeeper and she leads you up some stairs to one of the oddest little apartment complexes you have ever seen. Or will see, when I go back there with my camera.

This is Santa Prassede, a gorgeous church with an incredible byzantine mosaic chapel that is totally impossible to photograph, I discovered. Even the internet cannot provide me with a good enough picture of it. I did manage to take video inside the chapel, which is probably better than nothing: it was dedicated to Theodora, the mother of the pope who built the church.

Have I mentioned how much I love Rome in the last five minutes? No? Well, I love it. This graffiti was in the metro station on my way to work.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009


I finished a piece I've been working on for ages yesterday. It's called Rumor, and it's on my website here if you want to see bigger pictures.

I'm working with magic markers and ballpoint pens, and there are many, many layers of both on this piece. This is my first large drawing in color, with these pens, and I'm still not sure about it. Sometimes I think it's really great, and other times I just keep repeating the same joke in my head: this piece puts the mental in experimental.

I love working with the magic markers, though. I've got another magic marker piece started already, and someday soon I'll finish the other black and white ballpoint piece that I worked on in August. It's another swan, and it's looking pretty good, but I've been seduced by these new pens- I just can't go back to black and white right now.

This piece took me about two months, working in the studio nearly every day. Someday I'll make a little video out of all the phases it went through- I changed all these colors about a million times before I settled on anything- the green area outside the word innocence was pink, then purplish, then blue, then green.

The large text says, "There was a rumor of innocence and guilt."

Speaking of feeling guilty, I know that I said that I was going to post about a fabulous church in Rome every day until I leave, and I didn't do that today, but I am actually not feeling the least bit guilty about it. Visiting a church a day I can do. I visited two churches today. Posting every day? No.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Do not Discuss Religion with Geese: Il Gesu Part 1

Goosey goosey gander, where do you wander?
Upstairs and downstairs and in my lady's chamber.
There I met an old man who would not say his prayers
So I took him by the left leg and threw him down the stairs.

I'm pretty sure that this nursery rhyme refers to the time when the queen of England was suspected of being a secret Catholic. The old man in question was, according to me, her priest, because at that time not saying your prayers was a punishable offense, although not by goose: for a while there one had to prove loyalty to the Church of England by saying the correct prayers. I'm hazy on the dates and names, but I'm pretty sure the goose was a Protestant. A mean Protestant.

If the goose had been a Jesuit, though, he might have liked today's church: Il Gesu. Il Gesu is the famous mothership of the Jesuits. I don't know a Jesuit from a hole in the ground, but I do know that this kind of iconography does NOT generally grace the front of your sweetness and light variety chapel.

There is a lot of that in Il Gesu. There are two priests stomping on people flanking the entranceway and at least two more groups of people being stompled inside the church. Even the cherubs don't look too friendly.

I'm going to have to go back there, though, because there was a gorgeous little chapel with a 15th century Madonna and the ceiling looked amazing, I made a big mistake by going in the early evening. I forgot that churches built in 1568 might not have the greatest light fixtures. So most of what I wanted to look at, particularly on the ceiling, was hidden in darkness. And although I was very tricky and figured out that I could lay my camera down flat on a chair to get a picture, I had technical problems.

Ooops. Part 2 soon.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Basilica of San Clemente

I've only got about seven more weeks left in Rome, and there are still hundreds of amazing things I want to do. This city is so dense with history that talking about what I've already seen seems a little nuts: I've been to the Colosseum, the Forum and the Palatine, the Circus Maximus, the Appian Way, St.Peters, the Sistine Chapel and the Pantheon. I've seen Berninis at the Piazza Navona and the Villa Borghese and I've visited the amazing Villa Dora Pamphilj. Each one of these places has blown my mind. The urban legend about doing acid seven times flutters around in my brain: if each of these sights was the most head-explodingly wonderful thing I've ever seen, am I legally insane?

I've eaten countless gelatos and discovered exactly why everyone who goes to Italy comes back to the US as a coffee snob. I've also developed a passionate devotion to bread sticks, a tertiary food obsession that is going to be really hard to explain an ocean away from my favorite brand. I've met lots of strangers and had actual conversations in actual Italian. My work has taken a really insane turn that I'm almost ready to let out of the closet. Seven more weeks is not long enough- I'm totally in love with Rome- but I will be very happy to see my family and friends again. I'm ready to return.

Almost. First I have to see seven weeks worth of churches. I'm on the church-a-day plan. Here's the deal. Churches in Rome are free museums. The only price of admission is a cynical pretense of modesty: if you're a woman, you have to cover up your sinful bare arms and neck to enter. (This irritated me much more before I saw a nun chewing out a shirtless college boy. I like my idiocy gender-neutral.)

I carry around a one euro scarf for just this purpose, and every day I make a point of going in to see a new church. I am rarely disappointed or bored. I've happened upon some incredible scenes: Rome is a place where you can find accidental Caravaggios, or Poussin's coffin, or columns so twisty they seem not to make sense, much less stand upright, just by walking in to an inconspicuous door on a side street. (It's surprising how inconspicuous the doors often are, but the history of Christianity in Rome is such that for a good long time it was practical to have the outsides of the churches deflect, rather than attract attention.)

I'm not going to try to catch up by documenting the amazing places I've already been, but I'm going to do my best to document the church-a-day mission from here on out.

Today I visited the Basilica of San Clemente, which is near my house, down the street from the Coloseum. (See? Rome=crazy town.)

San Clemente's Mithraeum

I had originally planned to organize my visits to churches around the idea of hunting for Mithras. Mithraems are little cave-like spaces in which an astrologically based mystery cult of Mithras was practiced: it's very interesting. Mithras is almost always pictured with a bull, a dog, a scorpion and a snake, which are thought to be references to constellations, and Mithras is always shown letting the blood of the bull. And he has a nice hat.

San Clemente's Mithraem is three stories down, below the 12th century church and the 4th century church below that. It's an amazing place to visit because all three levels of church are relatively intact: I'm used to being told that such-and-such a church was on top of something else, but in San Clemente's case you go downstairs, and there's the older church: you can see where you would have sat. And below that, the temple of Mithras. You can read about Mithras by following either of the links on his name, but not much is known about Mithraism: it was a mystery cult- only the initiates knew what it was about. Kinda like the Masons...(insert conspiracy theory here.)

There are lots of Mithraems in Rome, but Mithras hangs out in dark basements, and the Basillica of San Clemente convinced me that what I love is mostly above ground. Like this:

These mosaics were so beautiful! The sheep were gorgeous, touching, knowing little creatures.

Those are acanthus leaves. If you tell me what the deal is with acanthus I will buy you a gelato.

And if those mosaics weren't enough, there was the Chapel of St. Catherine of Alexandra by Masolino.

There are no good pictures of this anywhere on the internet. The church is full of signs saying that photography is forbidden, but it's such a shame- this little chapel was one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen, and the reproductions that were sold at the little church store stink. They show single scenes from a complex multi-perspectival tapestry of geometry that fills the chapel. This blurry one is the best I can find that gives a sense of the color and the way the place is put together. It's wonderful, and it's rotten that one can't photograph it, at least without a flash. Although to their credit, the Irish monks who run San Clemente have put the chapel up on the web in a nice VR format. Check it out!

This little scene is Saint Catherine being rescued from torture by an angel- the wheels were supposed to be tearing her apart, but they failed to do so. One thing I'm learning in my church-a-day mission is that saints were often the victim of severely inefficient murder attempts. One of my books says that St. Cecilia was sentenced to death by suffocation in the steam of her own bathroom. When that failed, someone tried to chop her head off three times. And failed. Saint Catherine of Alexandra is shown here escaping these wheels through divine intercession, but another source says that the wheel broke when she touched it.

Here she is converting the philosophers of Alexandria.

This annunciation is above the door to the chapel. It's gorgeous. You can see better pictures on the Basilica San Clemente Web Site.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Vindicating the Typewriter

I'm living in Rome now, not too far away from this thing, the monument to Victorio Emmanuel II. It was designed by Guiseppe Sacconi and although it was started in 1911, it wasn't finished until 1935, and which point Sacconi, thank God, was dead. Sacconi might have been aware of the controversy about the site of the monument- it was built over medieval remains, displaced a bunch of people and cut into the hill in an ugly way- but my hope is that he died before the monument itself became a legend. Because while all that sucked, it sucked in 1935. Mussolini made speeches on it in the following decade, but that's not what anyone's talking about, and even that was 64 years ago. And nobody's moving on.

Every text about this monument says some version of the same thing. From Wikipedia:
The monument itself is often regarded as pompous and too large. It is clearly visible to most of the city of Rome despite being boxy in general shape and lacking a dome or a tower. The monument is also glaringly white, making it highly conspicuous amidst the generally brownish buildings surrounding it, and its stacked, crowded nature has lent it several derogatory nicknames. Romans sometimes refer to the structure by a variety of irreverent slang expressions, such as "Zuppa Inglese", "the wedding cake", and "the false teeth", while Americans liberating Rome in 1944 labeled it "the typewriter", a nickname also adopted by the locals.

My Blue Guide to Rome can't get enough of how hideous this monument is, and neither can the Eyewitness guide. Lonely Planet even gets in on the action. Rick Steeves, Mr. Nice, says," From its roof you see everything in town, except this pompous, oversized monument — nicknamed "the typewriter" and "the wedding cake."

I've yet to find my eyeballs bursting in to flame when I see it. I pass it on the way to and from work, and today I took the trouble to climb it. I was looking for the ugly.

I didn't find it. I left the monument as mystified as I was when I got there. There are beautiful views from the top. There are some goofy sculptures, but there are good ones too. It's not ugly.

One of my students pointed out that it's gaudy, but lots of things in Rome are gaudy. Such as this:

St.Peters is also big, white, ornate and morally dubious. And Pope Ratzinger makes speeches in it. Ratzinger, whatever else he may be, is a walking incitement to nickname.

The whole thing reminds me of the way that when I was in high school there seemed to be collective decisions made about people's attractiveness that had little do with how people actually looked. One of the most beautiful women I've ever known was considered ugly in my high school, and another fairly plain girl had dates lining up around the block. She was nice, but this was a long line, and these were not deep sweet boys looking into the depths of her soul. It was just that agreements had been made. Nancy was pretty. Rebecca was not. You didn't need to use your actual eyes if you knew that by professing affection for Nancy you were not going to have to argue your point.There was a certain cowardice about it, but it wasn't malicious: liking Nancy, as hating the Monument to Vittorio Emmanuel II, was a symbolic nod to the collective. It was a bow to public opinion and ease. Plus Nancy was nice.

But calling Vittorio Emmanuel II's monument ugly is really reaching. This is ugly.

There is a lot of ugly. But there's not that much ugly that has a nickname, or that is made of sparkly clean marble and offers stunning views of a city.

The gaudy to ugly connection strikes me as the heart of the matter. There's a smugness inherent in the word gaudy. Gaudy is trying too hard, unrestrained, unsophisticated, over the top. It's wearing all its accessories at once, flashing at you with open need, appealing to everyone indisciminately. It's the opposite of minimal. It's not modern. It's not sophisticated. It's out there, wanting you to like it.

And what's wrong with that? We're not talking about people, we're talking about architecture. Shouldn't architecture try as hard as it can? Shouldn't it give you as many reasons as possible to like it, and to relate to it on a human scale? Shouldn't it flash its ornamentation at everyone?

Another of my favorite buildings, the Philadelphia city hall, is also nicknamed the wedding cake. (Apparently we don't like our architecture with icing.)

Both buildings are full of allegorical statues; The monument to Vittorio Emmanuel II has statues personifying the cities of Italy on it, and Philly's city hall is a cake full of Industry, Patience and Honor. We don't think that way any more, but it might be helpful to do so in this case. Imagine the Monument to Vittorio Emmanuel as a Gaudiness personfied. Imagine that as a statue. Of someone gaudy. Dolly Parton? Imagine Gaudy's opposite. It's much harder to come up with a visual of that statue- who would it look like? Someone so minimal, so sophisticated, so absolutely not trying too hard that they personify restraint and culture...John Malkovitch?

Who would you rather have dinner with? Well, fine, but who would you rather have attend your sister's wedding? The one where all your rotten cousins show up and get obnoxious, and your dad drinks too much champagne and your mom sings that awful song for the five hundredth time...The personification of minimalism is really great for impressing a small party of sophisticates, but you've got to go with Gaudy for good manners and pleasing a crowd. And doesn't civic architecture, which is, after all, about public space, have an obligation to try to be pleasing?

I'm not suggesting that we should return to the Baroque or that minimalism is bad. I love me some great minimalist architecture. But let's stop trying to impress John Malkovitch by dissing the monument to Vittorio Emmanuel II. It only wants us to love it. And we might as well.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Genius Jen

My pal Jen MacDonald just uploaded some of her beautiful videos to youtube. This one is called Romantic Brood.

You can see more of them here ; they're all great, but you might have to be persistent to see them all. Youtube gave me a little trouble; it kept telling me to try again later. But it wasn't very specific about exactly when later was... Reloading the page seemed to fool it into thinking I'd given it a long, rejuvinating rest. Just keep trying that if it conks out after the first video.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Rome baby!

I'm in Rome now, and every day I see more amazing art than I can possibly write about. I have thousands of pictures and tons of great stories and I'm completely in love with about a million things a day. Today? A fragment of a giant foot that was on the grass near a restoration in progress that's taking place off of the Appian Way. There's another giant foot fragment in Rome that's on Via dei Piedi or something- this is not that foot. That's good too, but that's a human foot. This one was about three feet wide and well, see for yourself.

I'm working on a new large drawing and have done a few small ones, but those will be posted later. For now, though, some random pictures of things I love in Rome. Not even close to a complete list.

Bernini's Bee Fountain

and his elephant. Pretty much everything Bernini is great, including his buffi baffi. This elephant is outside of the church called Santa Maria Sopra Minerva. Which I also love, not least because its name translates as "St. Mary on top of Minerva." Because it is. The old temple to Minerva is underneath it somewhere.

Why fake what you already have? This is in that same church, and it's reeeeaaaalll....

These ladies are on the top of the National Museum of Modern Art.

And this guy, whose name I think is Mithrades, is in the Vatican.

Another fountain, this time outside the Villa Borghese, which you can look up if you want to understand this fine simile: as pigs are to mud, Sam is to Rome.