Thursday, May 27, 2010

if all rings were grooves...





yesterday i was able to visit my favorite japanese temple/garden - commonly known as ginkakuji temple, and even though i have been there many times over the last 15 years or so, i always manage to see things i'd not noticed before, or even more interestingly, seeing things i had seen before but in a new light.

one such moment occurred near the entrance, where there is a small shrine at the top of a few steps on a very small path of rocks. i'd seen it from the ground, but never knew one could walk up to the shrine itself. the shrine is small and not such a big deal, but turning around to walk back down the few steps, i realized i could see my favorite part of the landscape (a mound of sand known as "kogetsudai" which is evocative of mount fuji) from an entirely different angle and height.

seeing the large sand mound from above, i noticed the gravel around it had been "combed" in concentric circles by some sort of rake, and i began to notice, of course, the resemblance between the circular rakings around the larger mound, and the circular grooves found on the surface of a record.

normally, this kind of visual one to one relationship is where such a thought would end, but in light of the recent advances of technology in relation to "reading" grooves, i began to wonder about it more. it got me thinking about edouard-léon scott de martinville's phonoautograph machine, which made drawings from voices with soot and a stylus; and how a few years ago some scientists were able to "read" the stylus drawings and translate them back into sound.

obviously a path of raked stones would not contain soundwaves or information connected to the vibration of a stylus, nonetheless i wonder what might the sound be like if someone were able to "play" these circular sand lines. in all likelihood, it would sound like a wall of noise in all its splendor; yet i can't help but wonder, if within such a thing, there might be a bit of the essence of the landscape or some audible residue of all that has sounded upon this site...

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Monday, May 24, 2010

a tuning fork in an ambrotype...



and there he sits


the chemical reactions to the glass, as if

the sound from his tuning fork - so still

and present upon his thigh -

is visible.

his hand perhaps

resting upon some scientific equation,

or the words towards some

alchemical spell,

his index finger touching a first word of acoustic revelation

or the last word in a sequence

revealing a magic.

his notes rest upon a book closed,

while an acidic chemical rainbow

hovers just above his head - and ears -

like a sheet lost to the wind.

two black scars like snakes fallen from trees,

parenthesis or cupped hands

as he becomes a voice.

his chest glows, his whole body

is listening...

(a rare ambrotype featuring a man holding a tuning fork, circa 1870, one of my favorite recent acquisitions).

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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

when the russian avant garde suggests captain america and guru dutt...






while going through a couple of boxes in my storage space i found a magazine i bought in the late 1980's called the journal of decorative and propaganda arts. this 1987 summer issue had a special "russian/soviet" theme, and i'm guessing i originally bought it for the articles on the ballets russes ( around that time i was pretty obsessed with cocteau, satie, and nijinsky), and early russian avant garde book design.

the strange thing about looking at something i last looked at 23 years ago - during a kind of nether-moment between undergrad and grad school - is seeing what might have inspired me then, and what inspires me now. certain things, such as lev bakst's beautiful costume drawings, seemed very important to me 23 years ago, but i can't for the life of me now figure out how they might have impacted my work and thinking then. looking through the magazine now, there are also things that i don't remember ever seeing, which means i felt they were irrelevant towards my interests then, but which now feel much more relevant to my work and interests, but were simply outside of the scope of my own vision then.

there is one work in the magazine that i remember killed me then, and still kills me now. this is the 1913 watercolor by mikhail larionov pictured above, which was created as a cover design for alexei kruchenykh's book of poems called pomade. in 1987 i was just entering a stage painting that looked like "pure abstraction" on the outside, but was really constructed of images and symbols much more reflective of narrative on the inside. thus at the time, the visual language of the russian avant garde provided a lot of inspiration for me, particularly the pre-constructivist works.

this watercolor by larionov, still feels somehow as if it is straddling the space between abstraction and image, even though the piece is clearly an image. at a time when i was moving away from the aggressive and violent imagery of a former punk rocker heavily influenced by the language of german expressionism, i was finding my way towards quieter and more introspective explorations, fueled by the discovery of rilke, and arthur dove. larionov's picture seemed to signify, for me, this shift. the way he deals with image seems to riff away from blue rider and german expressionist tendencies, towards more visual freedom, softness and a bit closer (although tentative) towards abstraction.

seeing larionov's image now, it feels even more powerful. as a maker, i realize that the simplicity is completely deceptive, and on top of everything that i have learned about history over the last 20 years or so, the image still has the ability to bring more conversation to the table, such as how much it suddenly seems related to early modernist japanese painting. but none of these connections are what set me to wanting to write about larionov's piece. i wanted to write about it because it suggested something to me that has nothing to do with art history, something outside of larionov's own intentions, and yet the minute my eyes fell upon that image, my mind flew towards a 1957 film still, which of course, seemed totally unrelated.

larionov's watercolor, was originally made for a book titled "pomade", and the image seems to be of an angel (or a four armed man) rubbing/massaging another person's head, and it left me thinking of a scene from one of my favorite films of all time, guru dutt's 1957 masterpiece pyaasa. one of the classic scenes in the film consists of johnny walker standing in a park, massaging a gentleman's head with oil, while singing a song. the scene is somewhat hilarious as walker not only massages the man's scalp, but includes some bongo type "drumming" upon his head in sync with the music and walker's song.

i know it would be a ridiculously unrealistic leap of faith to think that dutt might've been inspired to write the scene after seeing larinov's cover piece for pomade, but dutt was certainly schooled in art history, and he did "borrow" ideas from other things. one of the main plot devices in pyaasa was stolen from the hollywood film sullivan's travels. in both films the main character loses his coat to a bum,who then gets hit by a train and dies; which leads everyone to think that the main character has died. dutt loved hollywood films, and was clear and "transparent" in his use of preston sturges' earlier plot device; but of course, i have never read anything by him that mentions larionov's drawing as an influence on the johnny walker pomade scene.

the magazine also contains a photograph of a "sports costume" designed by varvara stepanova from the early 1920's. i don't remember this image from my first encounter with the magazine, but does seem strange for a russian design to resemble an american flag, and even more so to resemble some of the patriotic clothing rural americans wore in homespun fourth of july parades and festivals in the late 1800's. the dress, as you can see above, is red, white, and blue, and contains a star in the center and a number of stripes. like larionov's pomade drawing, what surprised me wasn't so much the reference to the american flag, but again to something seemingly unrelated, the superhero outfit of captain america.

as with larionov's image, i have no idea where, when, or if images of this dress ever traveled, but i can't help but wonder if jack kirby and joe simon , who created captian america in 194o to combat the rising tide of hitler and nazi-ism, ever saw stepanova's design. russian avant garde designs and artworks were certainly known in the usa by the 1940's, but how much of it was exhibited in museums or published in magazines i have no idea. of course, all of these thoughts are quite a stretch, and my thoughts are simply founded upon intuitive connections as opposed to academic or scholarly research, but perhaps it is simply setting the table for more connections between seemingly disconnected things, or at least suggesting some amount of the potential viability of following one's own path through things...

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Monday, May 17, 2010

a case for patience...


"a half-starved fox, who saw in the hollow of an oak tree some bread and meat left there by shepherds, crept in and ate it. with his stomach distended he could not get out again. another fox, passing by and hearing his cries and lamentations, came up and asked what was the matter. on being told, he said: 'well, stay in there till you are thin as you were when you went in; then you'll get out quite easily.'
this tale shows us how time solves difficult problems."

from: fables of aesop,
translated by s.a. handford,
illustrations by brian robb,
penguin classics, 1954

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Friday, May 14, 2010

when the moon was an ear (3 poems by vicente huidobro)

New Song:

Inside the Horizon

The voice
is not known

Among the branches
No one is to be seen

The moon itself was an ear

And one hears
no sound

a star unnailed
Has fallen into the pond


And there is no exit


Beyond the last window
the bells of the Sacre'-Coer
Make the leaves fall


Eyelids full of muscic
Raises his hands
in the midst of the void

She who comes from afar
Has not given him her arm

He is all alone
And with broken voice

He sings a melody
that no one
has understood


The hours glide
Like drops of water on a window pane

Midnight silence

Fear unrolls in the air
And the wind
hides at the bottom of the well


It's a leaf
We think the world is going to end

stirs in the shadow

Everyone is asleep
Inside the house someone has died
from the cubist poets in paris, an anthology, huidobro's poems here are most likely from the 1920's but the book only cites the originals used for the translations, not the original dates of the poems (which is very annoying...). i would also check out huidobro's manifestos, published several years ago by green integer.

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Monday, May 10, 2010

above the books, below the moss...


two gems from yesterday's flea market. note the blurred open book at the bottom of the photograph of the teacher, suggesting it was taken from the viewpoint of a student's desk. i think the bottom picture speaks for itself...(you should be able to see them both bigger by clicking on them...)

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Monday, May 03, 2010

when a painting slows you down...





while i was in madrid working on my installation, i managed to find three free days to visit the prado (twice) and the renia sofia (once). i saw a lot of incredible things, some of which i will try to post about over the next few weeks or so, but if i had to choose a single object that stood out from the rest, it would definitely be the fra angelico painting pictured above - retablo de la anunciacion, 1426-28.

going to a museum like the prado, the louvre, or the met, i always feel i want to wander without specific goals, so that i can enter some rooms without any idea of what i will see there. fortunately the prado's poor design allows a visitor to become disorientated quite often, and getting lost was not a problem. while i did map my way to goya's black paintings, and the room of bosch's work; everything else was pretty much a random discovery - which is a really beautiful way to experience a museum if you have the time.

when i first entered the room containing the fra angelico i was immediately struck by its size (it is easily 4 or 5 times larger than i had expected), as well as its placement - it is flanked by two incredible works, a small painting by mantegna (el transisto de la virgin, 1462-92) and antonello de messina's christo muerto sastenido por un angel, from 1476.

i should tell you that, as an artist who received a graduate degree in 1989, the last time i studied art of this period was probably in 1982, and whatever information i received then - during slide lectures of course - has certainly vanished. while i do love this period of painting, all i really "know" about it at this point is only what i can see and intuit in the presence of such things - indeed a different kind of research or learning than the kind that occurs in art history class.

while i was installing my own work, i ended up having a number of conversations with both older and younger artists who were also participating in the arte sonoro exhibition. as usual a number of those conversations were related to definitions of sound art, various approaches to performance, and how one experiences sound in various contexts. of course, most of these conversations ended up hovering around the idea of primary experience - with the usual discussions revolving around the qualities of listening to certain works in mp3 form, the relationship of the object of a CD or LP to the activity of listening and downloading.

while i have no interest in following such threads here, the experience of not only seeing the fra angelico on two different days, but also being able to sit beneath it on my second visit for over an hour, was a deeply profound experience. that hour spent in the presence of the original was as good as any illustration about why, in many cases, an mp3 is not a primary experience; but roughly the equivalent of experiencing the fra angelico painting through the postcard i purchased of it in the gift shop.

a primary experience is not only about receiving an image. it is about the experience of that image in relation to the object's physical presence - confronted by the all of the things that do not survive the process of translation, and which influence the process of "absorption" - things like harshness, subtlety, surface, patina, light, color, tone, etc. when one is present with a source, rather than a reproduction, an object is able to speak in its primary voice. a reproduction is simply a tool for the transfer of information, and usually it's source is degraded and veiled... for research or as a memory trigger it is fine, but it isn't the equivalent of being with the thing as it was made.

the next step towards deeper immersion, of course, is time and repetition. to be able to look at a painting for over an hour is certainly a luxury, but it is also a kind of commitment towards conversation and reflection. because of my own inability to process hundreds of artworks in a day with any substance, i am also an advocate of seeing fewer things in a visit, and spending as much time with each thing as possible.

as i sat on a bench facing this fra angelico painting, things began to come into focus that i never would've seen nor thought, had i stood there for 10 minutes and moved on to the next thing. i'm not sure that my notes here are perceptive or interesting, but i share them with you just the same. here they are presented as jotted down upon a small piece of paper between the lookings - words that do not come from memory, nor from looking at the postcard now leaning against my monitor, but scrawled with a pen in hand, in the presence of the object, while conversing through that primary experience:

"the angel in red, with blue robe peeking through/the woman in pink but covered in blue - they are opposites but equal. their hands both in the same gesture - as if an american indian hand signal for bird, angel, spirit, or flight. symmetrically broken up into three - 3/2/1. 1=mary, 2=angel, 3= natural world/eden. (trinity). the interior of her "cell" / "portico" - a blue sky with gold dot stars (is there a constellation hidden?) - behind is a simple "cell"/fantastic bench. the beam of light "the message" coming from beyond/the sun/a beam from two hands. the "eden" seems painted by rousseau - there's a bird in the beam and a bird on a beam - the swirling mist of color of stone, like a hallucination - the beam is the only element present in all 3 sections - uniting the human, the "touched" and the divine. the three flowers at adam and eve's feet. the perspective and architectural scale resembles johnson's folly at glass house. there are no words to describe the angel's wings."

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