Monday, January 31, 2011

when gordon house was like and unlike sol lewitt...



like sol lewitt, the print editions made by uk artist gordon house in the 60's and 70's were rooted in permutations. unlike sol lewitt, house's day job included graphic design work - thus many of his serial motifs seem more related to the late 60's and early 70's graphic approach to art deco and decorative design than serial minimalism.

i hadn't come across house's work until i was doing a bit of research on the work of richard smith, whom i posted about in relation to his kite paintings that hang from the ceiling of the mr. chow restaurant in beverly hills. smith's paintings were exhibited in london before they were shipped to the restaurant, and the exhibition's announcement card was designed by house (and thusly, i'm assuming they were part of the same london "scene".

house is certainly not a household (sorry) name here in the states, but the carnegie and the brooklyn museum mounted a 20 year survey of his printwork in 1981. the catalog is a strange affair, with tiny images of over 130 different works in black and white - and only 4 images in color. i'm sure it was a cost decision, but it seems odd considering how important color is to house's work.

his prints are an array of tightly organized forms, shapes, and sizes - yet there is a clear consistency in all of his projects: a crisp graphic visual language and an extremely extroverted love of geometric design. at the beginning of each series in the catalog, house has written a short text which tends to be a kind of diagrammatic explanation of process rather than a conceptual one. i love house's down to earth approach, writing of his inspirations and process in a relatively matter of fact way, simply laying the process bare.

house's short statements are are also peppered with a variety of source references and inspirations that clearly do collide in his visual motifs such as: the graphic work of edward munch, owen jones' "grammar of ornament", mcintosh, edo period japan, record album covers, french posters (lautrec/steinlen), hokusai, old type catalogs, bridge arches, volkswagons, moser and klimt, gothic leaded windows, the book of kells... and i would add that house's work was certainly rooted in pop art as well.

i recently managed to pick up two preliminary drawings by house (pictured above). the drawings were made to map out a couple of works from a series of silkscreen prints he worked on in 1972-73. of course what is interesting about these drawings is that you can see house thinking through the process, not only through form, but also via color through the hand painted "paint chips" attached at the bottoms. both of the drawings relate to series of vertical "tri-part" prints, with various permutations in 3 equal sections - each containing an arc, a stripe, or a triangle. the prints themselves are pretty stunning, but i really love the way these notations speak about house's process... and the sort of deconstructed images that have been taken apart in the drawings are pretty darn wonderful.

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Saturday, January 22, 2011

a sad day for small music...

"when i went to a garden in okayama, a crane landed and suddenly gave a loud cry. i was surprised that a sound like that could exist. and then the silence afterwards: in complete harmony in the space. then i understood the beauty of japanese gardens."
rolf julius, 1992

life and death are certainly strange things. last weekend i picked up a copy of a recent cd release of rolf julius' music for the ears and small music no. 1 - both ecordings from 1979. on monday, i spent the entire day in the studio painting, with the cd repeating for about 10 hours. every time i took a break from painting, i sat and listened to these stunningly beautiful and simple works in their entirety, and i realized how much his work has always inspired me.

when i first started to make "sound art" i wanted to be rolf julius. the first time i met him, for a small festival in berlin, i ran into him in a hallway, where it had looked a bit like he had dropped a small suitcase on the floor and all of his gear had fallen out of it in disarray. he was standing there bent over looking at the small speakers, wires, and small cassette players as if reading a map. after standing next to him for a few minutes, i realized that sound was also present, barely audible, and that this was his installation. it was a wonderful first meeting, like being kids and looking for small colorful insect in the grass.

his work always had this natural feeling of happenstance on the surface, and then it started to work its immersive magic on you. it was the least pretentious work i've ever encountered - certainly more "lower case" in terms of its presence than i could ever achieve; and as an artist and human being this humility was also always present. he was incredibly generous to me, not only over the years that we exhibited together, but most importantly when i was just beginning, and he simply treated me like an another artist.

monday, immersed in these two early pieces of his, i spent a lot of time sitting and listening. at one point i went over to my desk and started to write him a letter, as i realized how long i had been listening to his work in its various forms, marveling at his drawings, his writings, and just how hugely inspirational his work has been to me - not only since the beginning of my making sound works, but continually, still, now. i wanted to tell him that his work was like a beacon to me - like the painters myron stout, alfred jenson, arthur dove, lee mullican, who always kick my ass and push me forward, julius' work is always there as a kind of measuring stick, something to live up to. unfortunately i never finished the letter.

these early works of his contain the core of everything he would do from that point forward, and i wanted to thank him for the continued tactile nature of his sound, its fragility, its presence and absence, its repetition and abstraction, but mostly its minimal presence and some undefinable quality of the organic and natural, as well as how composition too can be humble. so many times rolf called his work "small music" and it wasn't bullshit artspeak... he really meant it...

so, this morning when i received some emails of rolf's passing, my mind went to those little pieces i remember first hearing at e/static, small tea cups with little lids and tiny speakers inside - so one could sit with the object, and with the lid off the sound barely audible but constant, and then to place the lid on the cup to silence the sound. its a very sad day for sound art, and it is a very sad day for ears.

i hope anyone who is unfamiliar with rolf's work will use this sad day to discover his quietly magical world, and for those of us who were lucky enough to know him, i know we will all continue to be inspired by the works he has left behind. his sound works will continue to grow ever more present, while his physical presence will certainly be missed.


Wednesday, January 19, 2011

i love the sound of trains, especially when they are distant, and i can't see them...



(2 snapshots from 1930, a boy and a homemade radio)

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Thursday, January 13, 2011

when shaw demanded a new alphabet...




i recently came across a book i cannot believe i'd never seen before. it is a penguin paperback edition of bernard shaw's androcles and the lion printed in two languages. on the left side is the english text, but what totally floored me is text on the left, which has been translated into the "shaw alphabet"... and the alphabet's story is quite amazing...

when shaw died, his will contained provisions to appoint a public trustee towards the development of a new "proposed british alphabet", made up of 40 letters, to enable the "said language to be written without indicating single sounds by groups of letters or diacritical marks".

he also specified that a phonetic expert would "transliterate my play androcles and the lion into the proposed british alphabet assuming the pronunciation to resemble that recorded of his majesty king george V, and sometimes described as northern english..."

in 1957, the public trustee announced an award of 500 pounds for the design of such an alphabet, and 450 different designs were eventually submitted in 1958. no single proposal seemed to fit the bill, so the money was split between the top 4 designs, "thus closing the competition." the public trustee then asked "an expert in this field" to work with the designers to create an alphabet closest to shaw's will's graphic phonetical vision. it seems the final design was a group effort, leading to an alphabet that looks a bit like greek or russian characters..

also in the book's introduction:

"here is shaw's alphabet. it has been proved that those who wish to read it can do so after only a few hours of concentrated deciphering... you will notice from the comparisons that shaw's alphabet is more legible and one-third more economical in space than traditional printing... open the book and hold it upside down in front of a mirror. both mirrored pages will thus become equally unfamiliar. keep the back of the book pressed against your lips, and advance towards the mirror until you are able to see individual characters clearly enough to be able to copy them. note that the shaw characters are clearly seen at a greater distance..."

of course, there have been many attempts to re-invent the alphabet, but i don't know of any other situation where a very very famous writer funded a newly written alphabet that was actually used in a publication by a mainstream publisher. at the time the penguin book was published, shaw alphabet editions of androcles and the lion were also offered free to libraries.

online, the alphabet is called both the "shaw alphabet" and the "shavian alphabet" and there are numerous interesting histories, and variations of the typeface online, including some places you can download a program to convert the letters you are looking at right now, into their shavian equivalents. personally, i prefer this musty old penguin with its detachable reading and writing key... which seems somewhat easily found through the usual used book channels...

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Monday, January 10, 2011

guest post at lacma's unframed blog...


i was honored to be invited to do a guest post on the recent blinky palermo exhibition for LACMA's unframed blog. i have been a huge fan of palermo's work for years, particularly the early works, and my difficulty with trying not to suck the life out the work with words led me a bit towards the ridiculous... this is what happens when one tries to write about work which should not be read about, as much as simply stood in front of.

to read the post click here.

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Tuesday, January 04, 2011

closing reception on sunday...

sunday is the last day of my 20 year survey at the armory center for the arts in pasadena, and the super wonderful folks at the armory have decided to have a closing reception from 11 am - 1 pm in the gallery. i will be there (although not wearing the hat pictured above), and so will the curator, howard fox. details here.

also, we just confirmed that the exhibition will be traveling to the university art gallery at san diego state university. tentative dates are february 14 - may, with several public events... i'll post more about this when the details are ironed out.

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Saturday, January 01, 2011

on new years day, with sensory lines and memory lines...

"we choose our favorite [insects] according to the way they look, and according to the mood they offer. a glow-worm in the grass on a late summer evening can - as a mildly, magically shining lantern greeting us from a tuft - in a paradoxical way, provide a mood for an entire twilight landscape. through our senses the glow-worm gives us a wide range for our soul. in a similar way, a ladybug concentrates, in its jewelry-like daintiness, the mood of a sunny summer meadow in the highlight of beauty which she herself re-creates with her wing cases. there is something indescribable in such a concentrated experience. the ladybug can represent all the senses' summers, with sensory lines and memory lines coming together in an intense now, all in one spot. such a distinctively emphasized experience of one spot, of one now and one life, can only be conveyed by insects, because they are small enough to make us focus our vision on that particular point: the up-close point in the living now. at the same time we find there is a different system of coordinates here than the one that deals with positions - a coordinate system of the senses, of experience and poetry."

harry martinson, insects - an adventure of the mind, from views from a tuft of grass