Thursday, September 24, 2015

Shove Thy Neighbor

by Drew Martin
Love Thy Neighbor is always interpreted as an open-armed, peaceful embrace but I have never heard objection to the premise, which is one of land-ownership and material isolation that is bound in the word neighbor. This word does not exist if there is no unnatural division.

I have tried to love my neighbors but there are physical boundaries such as property lines, doors and walls, and cars; and, there other boundaries such as elitism, unsynchable schedules, loaded guns in their closets, and fears. The fears are about losing things that were accumulated and about what life might be like without one's personal bunker - nothing short of Mad Max. So what we then have is a justifiable yet unwarranted prestrike of self-defense: a constant defensive life.

My daughter who is soon to turn 17 recently said to me that humanity ended once people settled down and started developing towns. It is something she read, and it is actually quite true. The compromise of our freedoms starts with land ownership and division of territory, and it leads to slavery, unfair accumulation of wealth and territorial warfare. Sounds awful, but at the same time it is hard for us to imagine what life would be like without the boundaries of time and space.

For the most part, when we speak of nomadic peoples we are discussing ancient humans, or movements that have been extinguished in the past century, such as the shepherds of southern Poland.

Fortunately, for humanity, there are some humans walking the earth, and sleeping in a different spot each night. Each day is more important than the past or future. Fortunately, for us, a young French traveler named Raphael Treza, has documented the Hindu Kalbelias tribe of Rajasthan, North Western India with his film Cobra Gypsies.

At times it feels more like a music video than a documentary, but it is hard to say that Treza romanticizes their lifestyle even though it often reads that way, especially coming from a Westerner, who in one part of the film drums up the European colonist fantasy: to be the first white man these natives have ever seen. 

None-the-less Treza's closeness with and acceptance by the Kalbelias is endearing and, after all, for our voyeuristic benefit. It is more like he presents us with carefree but hardworking nomads in such a raw way that we, ourselves, automatically idealize them. I think this feeling has less to do with the exotic, and more to do with a genuine freedom they have combined with great artistic whims and style.

Watch the full documentary here:

Saturday, September 19, 2015

The Loudest Silence I Have Ever Heard

by Drew Martin
There is a big place in my heart for the Amish people, which has nothing to do with their direct religious belief and their rules, but rather about how this translates into their simple lives, and their relationship to the land. I connect with that more than our explosive entertainment culture, constant distractions, and self-importance. And so, any time I see a decent-looking Amish documentary online, I pull up the ironing board and watch in fascination. Tonight I watched The Amish: Shunned...Your Freedom or Your Family, which takes a close look at the shunned Amish who, as one of them expresses, is "lost between cultures." 

The title of this post, The Loudest Silence I Have Ever Heard,
 is a quote from a shunned former Amish woman who attended her father's funeral (typically not permitted for people who leave the community) and how powerful the silence was when she and her non-Amish husband passed by the open coffin with more than 400 Amish looking on. This woman, and others featured in the film, plays a role in the periphery of the community by taking in younger Amish people who leave their families and need a place to stay and a surrogate parent. Early on in the documentary she comments on how the Amish do not permit to have pictures taken of them and how hard it is for our culture to comprehend what it means to only have mental pictures of your loved ones.

One of the ex-Amish featured in this film is a young woman who felt it was God's calling for her to become a nurse. She comments that while putting herself through college to become a nurse makes her a good daughter/person in our culture, it led to her own shunning from the Amish community.

One thing I have found interesting about a lot of the ex-Amish I have seen in such documentaries is that they remain quite religious. They want to know more about Christianity and to interpret the Bible on their own. They question the Amish rules, not the foundation of the faith.

From a media perspective, I think they have a unique understanding of worldly media. Is our abundance of images of each other more important than a good mental picture? While I certainly appreciate such documentaries who is the real audience?

Watch the full documentary here:

Sunday, September 13, 2015

The Past, Present, and Future of Computer Games

by Drew Martin
I recently watched two good movies about computer games. The first is Video Games: the Movie, produced by Zach Braff, a documentary which explores the past, present, and future of video games, and the influence of the Atari games that marked the adolescence of my generation. It validates the medium as a rich, interactive story-telling art form, and demands the same level of respect that the movie industry gets for its participating careers. There has been more buzz around the film Atari: Game Over, also made in 2014, but Braff's documentary is a much better watch, if you have to choose. And if you have all the time in the world, then watch both but also check out Indie Game, which is the best of the three in terms a compelling narrative, and is an all around slicker film. 

One thing I do appreciate about Video Games: the Movie is the discussion about gamification. One of the people interviewed in the film suggests that social media apps such as Facebook are really just forms of video games. This makes a lot of sense since there are actions one makes in return, hopefully, for points...or in the case of Facebook, likes or friends. Thinking about this term today, which is a buzzword now, made me realize that it is simply a human trait that has always existed both at a playful level but also with more gruesome consequences, such as collecting scalps, or marking on a fighter plane how many enemy craft a pilot shot down.

The second movie I want to point out is Computer Chess by Andrew Bujalski from 2013, which I watched last night. It is a brilliant film about a fictitious computer chess tournament set in the 1980s. It is shot with analog video camera and Bujalski cast computer techies for many of the roles. There are one or two characters who broke the illusion of it as a period piece and their presence made the film feel more like a contemporary low-budget Los Angeles indie film, but despite a few distractions in the acting, it is really an amazing film. I love the non-actors he cast and the different levels in the film. Yes, it is a dry comedy that focuses on a 1980's computer chess tournament but it is really an existential film. The tournament occupies an event room at a hotel (where they are all staying) but the same space is used in the early mornings as a couples therapy group led by a spiritual guide from Africa. 

The participants from both events overlap and the limitations of the 64 squares on the chess board are debated. One of the younger computer chess programmers at the tournament has the most thinking to do since he orbits both the seduction of one of the therapy couples who want to sexually liberate him, and the only female computer programmer at the event who also has her eyes on him. He discovers that his own chess program, which has been plagued by suicidal maneuvers throughout the tournament, actually does not want to play against other computers but rather with humans. When he suggests this to the professor lead of his team, a conversation begins about confirmation bias "where you're blind to all the things that will refute your theory and you're fixating on the things that will support it."

Friday, September 11, 2015

Dia:Beacon: Getting Into Robert Irwin's Excursus: Homage to the Square3

by Drew Martin
Dia:Beacon is one of the best places to contemplate some of the most important contemporary art. It has the space and solitude it needs to exhibit large works that other museums simply could not manage. The rooms devoted to Richard Serra, for example, are magnificent and his works there are breathtaking.

Dia:Beacon is only an hour or so from my house but it seems too far of a trip to casually make. Prior to yesterday I had only been once before but I was driving back to the New Jersey from a funeral of an artist in Connecticut and so it was a place to stop and remember this fellow, as it was on the way home.

I could write about this museum forever, but I want to bring attention to a current exhibit (up for two years) by Robert Irwin, the artist who designed the transformation of the museum space from an old box factory to what it is today.

Excursus: Homage to the Square
by Irwin is the kind of installation that a viewer might typically walk through in a minute and sigh "I get it" or "I don't get it" with the same apathetic tone. It consists of 18 ghostly scrimmed rooms that lead into one other at the corner posts. In the center of each translucent/partly transparent wall is a lit vertical florescent tube (four to a room) which are identically accented with colored gels in each room, but are slightly differ from one room to the next. The effect departs from the influence for the piece - Josef Alber's original color study series - and enters the realm of coded language somewhere between a visual Morse code and lightning bug signals. They are mysterious light spectra that could be the readings of the gases of distant stars or some kind of emotional feelings.

The scrimmed walls allow you to see all the way through the exhibit but at the same time they also have the illusion that they are reflecting what is behind you, which plays with one's depth perception - a sensation that Irwin wants you to experience, but not obviously. 

While the cubic structure of the space is a simple arrangement, it has a maze-like complexity. This labyrinth is not constructed with a no-way-out design but rather by a mesmerizing gravity that pulls you back in. The rooms are structurally identical but their arrangement within the whole installation means that some are on the perimeter, while the others are totally interior. Dia:Beacon's press release for the installation says there is no beginning, middle or end but this is not exactly right. There is no particular place to enter or exit but it begins as you approach it and ends once you leave the installation. In the middle there is no duration. It is a timeless space that extends into an infinite future.

The first time I saw it yesterday I walked by rather quickly, but then I returned and spent well over a half an hour in the space. And then I returned again to spend more time. It is meticulously constructed with the perfectly taut scrim, which is precisely stapled to the thin wood stripping (painted white) that define the perimeter of the walls. All the staples on the sides of the doors are vertical and evenly distanced from one another. All the staples on the top of the doors are horizontal. On the top corners, the staples are at 45-degree angles, leaning toward the open space. It is a detail that marries the intention of the artist with the care of the museum staff and the respect of the viewer.

Excursus: Homage to the Squareis best to experience when you are alone, void of other museum goers, but that being said, it does change the space in an interesting way when there are other people present, and it would be interesting to explore with someone you intimately know; to lose and find and lose and find again in this overlapping place of time and space.

Monday, September 7, 2015

The Ungentlemanly Art: A History of American Political Cartoons

by Drew Martin
I just finished reading The Ungentlemanly Art: A History of American Political Cartoons, which is a fascinating look at American history through the eyes and minds of political cartoonists, and the influence on the artwork due to various reproduction methods and schedules of more timely publications. While I am not particularly interested in American history, this book was a great approach because of the details covered in the illustrations and the opposing points of view that the artists offered.

Benjamin Franklin's Join, or Die snake is a topic of discussion concerning its first appearance in 1754 and then multiple uses thereafter. I did not actually know this was by Franklin's hand, and I was clueless to the meaning behind the severed creature: a superstition at that time that if you cut up a snake and were to stick its parts back together before sunset, it would be whole again.

Thomas Nast, a German-born illustrator, had such influence with his cartoons that once he set his sights on William M. Tweed, a corrupt mid-1800's New York politician and the "Boss" of Tammany Hall the political machine that controlled New York State, he was offered $100,000 to go "study art" in Europe. Nast bid up Tweed's offer to half a million dollars but then declined it so that he could stick around and put Tweed and his cohorts behind bars. 
Tweed demanded...

"Stop them damn pictures. I don't care so much what the papers write about me. My constituents can't read. But, damn it, they can see pictures." 

In this The Tammany Tiger Loose cartoon which ran in Harper's Weekly in 1871, Nast depicts Tweed as emperor who watches his mascot tiger maul Columbia, the symbol of the American republic at that time.

The Ungentlemanly Art also traces this switch from Columbia to Uncle Sam as the symbol of America by way of Brother Jonathan, a character who was a bit of a country bumpkin.

The caption of the Jim Crow themed illustration here by the Pulitzer Prize winning Bill Mauldin is "I've decide I want my seat back." Mauldin ridiculed the southern redneck in many of his cartoons and championed Civil Rights in the 1960s.

While The Ungentlemanly Art is a refreshing and very visually attentive approach to American history it of course also casts a wider net. Many of the cartoonists in the United States were actually European immigrants - some of them excelled, while others never adjusted to the cultural climate - and many of cartoons were about world events. One of the interesting notes was that while the political cartoonists were typically the avant-garde of political commentary and were insightful about their subjects, most of them got Adolf Hitler wrong, seeing him at first as a bit of a clown, and not the dangerous dictator that he was.

One of my favorite aspects of The Ungentlemanly Art is beyond its pages and references. I loved thinking about these artists; pre-computer, and often pre-electricity. While there are great technical skills needed for etching and engraving, the mind of the artist was perhaps more independently critical to the product as it was less about being an operator of program needed to obtain the result. But this is true of political cartoonists and editorial illustrators today too and is what separates them from graphic artists. I often think about the ratio of idea to execution in art so I was pleased to read a passage in the beginning of the book that addressed this:

One of the finest American newspaper cartoonists during the years between the World Wars, Rollin Kirby, may have solved this paradox when he said in 1918 that a good cartoon consists of 75 per cent idea and 25 per cent drawing.

Another appreciation I have of this book is that it was published in 1968, the year before I was born. Unfortunately that means the history of American political cartoons ends a bit prematurely and misses out on nearly a half a century of work but the flip of this is that is a more patiently developed book and is better written than it would probably be if it were assembled today.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Down Periscope: Amanda Oleander's Body of Work

by Drew Martin
The late art critic Robert Hughes said of a "self satisfied" Jeff Koons that he “really does think he’s Michelangelo and is not shy to say so. The significant thing is that there are collectors, especially in America, who believe it. He has the slimy assurance, the gross patter about transcendence through art, of a blow-dried Baptist selling swamp acres in Florida. And the result is that you can’t imagine America’s singularly depraved culture without him." Hughes compared Koons' work to that of Seward Johnson (I thought it was also to Damien Hirst) and said discussing their work was “like debating the merits of dog excrement versus cat excrement”. 

I wish the cantankerous yet highly intelligent Nothing If Not Critical Hughes were around to chime in on a new phenomenon that has breached the levees of social media reality stars into the art world, which can only spell disaster. The Internet and social media have launched careers in the music and entertainment industry but have only been venues for artists to show off their work and get connected. The new reality is quite different. Think Rebecca Black meets the art world.

On my last post I wrote about my fascination with Periscope as a medium but since then I became familiar with Amanda Oleander, a 25 year old who jumped on board from the beginning and is on her way to drumming up half a million followers. She is backhandedly called the Kim Kardashian of Periscope and its first star. I would be fine with another LA-based starlet making it big based on her looks and self-promotion but this time it's coming to a gallery/museum near you. I don't think there are any news-worthy shows planned yet, but there will be, unfortunately, mark my words.

Prior to the Oleander phenomenon, mediocre artists were contained to sites such as DeviantArt but Periscope has become a way to overcome a bad portfolio with good looks. Left alone on the other platforms Oleander would have not had a chance but the ubiquitous phone camera turned on her glaringly white teeth, Disney-character looks, youthful glow, short-shorts and off-the-shoulder fashion gained her the attention that her artwork could not do on its own. As she admits "It took me four years to get 2,000 followers on Instagram. And I did this on Periscope in four days?!"

The difference between Koons and Oleander has a lot to do with Marshall McLuhan's infamous statement, the Medium is the Message, which he made half a century ago. Koons hired agencies to curate his image and plan his promotion in order to strategically insert himself into the art world and to tell us what we should think of him. Oleander moves very differently in a Periscope-controlled environment. She constantly blocks viewers who go too far in commenting on her looks (which draws them there in the first place) or who aren't telling her how good she is as an artist. What you are left with is an incredibly censored mass of flattering followers and a very superficial discussion about her work.

In all fairness Oleander has some talent, as does Koons. I think it is safe to say Koons invented a casting process based on an inflatable device, and that he is a perfectionist, which helps in his sculptures but makes it impossible for him to create a decent painting. Likewise, Oleander, who is originally from Florida and got her BFA from UNC in Charlotte, would be an OK illustrator for children's books but she only has one cartoonish style and not a lot of thought behind her work. I turned to my 16-year-old daughter, who is a much more talented artist, for feedback on Oleander's scopes and asked her prove me wrong, but she concluded that neither Oleander or her work have a lot of character and are boring: personality without character - enough said.

A few hours after posting this article with the top three images, I was alerted by Periscope to a new replay of a broadcast by Oleander. I watched as much as I could handle. It starts out with her phone streaming her reflection. She is wearing a gangsta panda T-shirt from her "fine art clothing collection" which is more about her showing off her belly than anything else. A screenshot from the broadcast is the fourth picture here. Later, she talks about this animal series. She shows a painting of a rhino holding an iPhone 6 and she explains that she put the iPhone 6 in the painting as a time capsule for future generations so when the owner of the painting passes it down to his or her children or grandchildren they will realize its place in history because she "predicts" that people in the future "won't even be using iPhone 6s." The day before in a cafe she shows off smartphone charging keys that you plug in and place on a charging mat. She says she came up with the idea for this six months ago (the technology has been available for some Droids much longer than that) and finally someone has been able to match her vision. It's the kind of ego-centric delusion that Hughes refers to with Koons, only that it is immediately followed by viewers texting "you are amazing"... "you are so inspiring" etc, followed by a signature Oleander "Thank you so much. I love you guys." 

Sept. 19 Addendum:
I stopped bothering to pay attention to Oleander's broadcast alerts and replays but a couple days ago I saw a replay titled: Life of an artist in Los Angeles: ripping up priceless limited edition panda prints.

Priceless?? Really?? I thought this was going to be a tongue and cheek piece but it was actually Oleander taking herself more seriously than I imagined was possible. She ripped up a couple prints of the amateurish painting she did of the gangster panda with as much suspense as she could muster as if they actually were priceless. She spoke about her integrity as an artist and how should could sell these for thousands of dollars (after saying they sold for $20 each) but there were flaws with these prints that only she could detect. Then she sat down and started pasting/gessoing them on a store-bought canvas and explained how she would make something new from the torn pieces. While she was busy and not deleting the critical comments a couple piled up that I thought were interesting and tied in to the original body of this post, such as this one from a guy...

"I am not a fan of your art, but I am a fan of your personality."

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Up Periscope

by Drew Martin
A couple years ago I looked into the url availability of periscope for a cartoon I did about a submarine but is used by a creative agency. My favorite social media app now is Periscope at, which uses the .tv domain country code of Tuvalu that the company dotTV operates and is 20% owned by the country.

Periscope, if you have not been on it, is a live video streaming app purchased by Twitter for $100ish million in March 2015. 
Ironically, despite the big purchase @periscope is still the Twitter handle for the agency, with @periscopetv for the app.

My first encounter with Periscope was last week at an app meetup party on the rooftop Monarch in Midtown Manhattan for The Vane fashion/weather app and the TWIP like-minded peple travel app. I was there as the UX/UI designer for another app that is being developed. Covering the scene was Vicki Winters (@MyBigFatMouth), a youthful 58-year-old scoper with unbound energy who never missed a beat.

Later that night I stripped the replay video of us from Periscope and checked out the app. The possibilities and functionality of Periscope make other apps such as Snapchat look like old typewriters. At any moment you can scan the world for who is broadcasting and you can text-comment on the live video and tap the screen of your phone to send hearts to the scoper, which appear in the color of an overlay on your profile picture during the broadcast. There are never more than a couple dozen broadcasts going on from each continent at any one time so it is pretty easy to manage the world view. Additionally, the zoom function is pretty smart by how it shows the number of broadcasts in a region but then splits up into more specific places as you zoom in.

You can follow a scoper, and are alerted when they start their broadcast. The US and Brazil have the most live broadcasts from the Americas (Canada is almost nonexistent) and several countries in Europe are using it. Surprisingly, there is a big turnout in Russia, Turkey and the Arabian Peninsula.

Unfortunately most of the broadcasts from the farther flung regions are just a person, typically a young woman, staring at the screen while men swarm in, like spermatozoa around an unfertilized egg. They text lewd things, the most innocent of which is the hilariously bad English command, open boobs, in hopes that the lady with flash the phone camera. The goodnight broadcasts of young women get the most ogling eyes. One that I watched last night of a naked-ish Swedish woman under her duvet saw viewers go from 0 to 1.6K + in a matter of seconds. That being said, n
o matter how mindless a broadcast, seeing someone's kitchen or bedroom in Baku or Astana is still fascinating.

After watching a lot of crap, I realized that Vicki Winters was really on it and I am glad she introduced me to Periscope. Perhaps the app will wallow in the more senseless broadcasts but there are a few that I watched that caught my eye. One of the more casual broadcasts that I really liked was by Christian Tido, a college student out of Cameroon, who claims the broadcast I tuned in to was the first Periscope feed out of Africa. He and his friend, a cool young lady, fielded questions and endured silly comments as they looked out over his balcony to a nice neighborhood, and gave a brief tour of his house (upon my request). 

Periscope, because it is owned by Twitter, uses your Twitter ID. Christian's profile @tidochrys has the tagline "Hey, let's just all share the same eye!" followed by a little, Africa-prominent world emoji.

By far the scoper that I absolutely love the most and think is the best one out there in terms of the give and take is an early 30's American woman, Lauren, from Scottsdale, Arizona who has been living in Japan for the past 11 years as a high school English teacher. She shares a small flat in Yokohama with her Japanese husband Ryuji, two dogs and a cat. Lauren (JPUS Lauren USJP @starkodama) has been broadcasting regularly for the past month. Sometimes she gives Japanese lessons (her Japanese is excellent) or she might just spend the time talking about a subject such as HULU in Japan. There are also shorter broadcasts where she will take a walk around her neighborhood or let us join her as she walks to meet Ryuji after work. My favorite broadcasts (I have only seen two of this type - the first of which got me hooked) is where Ryuji sits off to the side with a dry erase board while Lauren fields requests from the viewers of what he should draw. Their chemistry is great, and the drawings are laugh-out-loud funny.

Aside from the topics and personality of Lauren's broadcasts, what I like most is her dexterity with the medium and the new talent it requires, which is all about covering her theme while constantly and cheerfully greeting the viewers as they join, and commenting on the rapid-fire texts that pop up. She is a pro at engaging the viewer and diffusing any erotic comments with her quick wit that turns the poke into a joke. That being said, she has the most respectful group of followers I have ever seen. 

On one broadcast Lauren calls Jiro (of Jiro Dreams of Sushian asshat for misogynistic comments he has made (like he does not hire women because their hands are too hot and also they cannot properly taste sushi when they are menstruating - which Lauren jokes that her hands are always cold, and that Jiro's own taste must be affected by his heavy smoking). A minute later she complains that she wants to take off her sweater but that her tank top underneath is too boobiliscious. With a viewer's suggestion, she titles the following broadcast #boobilisciousasshat.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

In the Moog for Electronic Music

by Drew Martin
Earlier today, in a little more than an hour and a half, I got caught up on four decades of electronic music and the history of the modular synthesizer by watching the documentary I Dream of Wires. As a story of differing East Coast vs West Coast approaches to a topic, this is as good as it gets.

The modular synthesizer was born in the sixties on both sides of the United States, and was quickly divided between the East Coast Philosophy and the West Coast Philosophy. The East Coast synthesizer, developed by Bob Moog uses a traditional keyboard, which appealed to the music industry 
because it was familiar, stabile, and could play Western scale notes

The West Coast synthesizer, developed by Don Buchla, was keyboardless and sought to redefine how music was approached and performed. It was based on metric loops in sequence, potentially forever. This experimental approach to music had a broader social context because "nonconformism and music go together" and it sought to avoid "the rules and suits and ties of the East coast." But those rules "listened to the client base of professional musicians and was ultimately able to deliver a relatively reliable product to the marketplace."

This next passage is acoustically over my head, but it sounds great...and maybe that's because the early Buchla has a red panel that was allegedly dipped in LSD so the person using it could lick it to get some inspiration:

With an East Coast Philosophy system you find rich waveforms, like saw, square, pulse, noise - harmonic rich waveforms to start with and then a big fat four pole filter to get rid of harmonics and sweep the resonance around to create the temporal shifts, to make the sounds more interesting.

In a Buchla you find oscillators that have waveshapers, but very simple filters after them. In most patches in a West Coast synthesizer, there isn't even really filtering going on. If you want to create the harmonic interest in the sound, you have to use the waveshaper. You have a sine wave that's been folded over on top of itself a bunch of times to create something really dense. It's like a completely different way at looking at synthesis. It's not subtractive synthesis in the traditional sense. There's a certain sound quality it gets that is totally unique, and it's just not possible to do it on any other system.

The documentary is about the success of the Moog system over the Buchla system, the abandonment of the modular synthesizers due to the introduction/competition of smaller, lighter, cheaper synthesizers with presets, and then the eventual return of these analog electronic systems through Acid House music and continuation in this era of "an explosion of ideas."

The return of the modular synthesizer is met with great optimism as one of the interviewed subjects explains...

I think as human beings we have a lot more fun than we'd like to acknowledge. It is fun. It's fun to make cities, automobiles, musical instruments, and huge sound systems. And we do a lot of things just for the pure pleasure of it. When generations listen to previous generations' manifestions, they want to get involved too. They want to dance with it, use it. And I think every generation ought be be absolutely ruthless about stealing the best of everything from previous generations. It's their duty, they have to do it.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Knew Museum

by Drew Martin
If the museums you once knew as unhurried and contemplative spaces now feel overrun by shows for mass appeal and back-to-back events vying for social media attention, then I have a suggestion for how to slow down time and recapture the reflective mood from a bygone era.

When you go to a museum, bring along a drawing pad, some pencils and an eraser, and perhaps pens and markers. Find a work of art on which you would like to fixate, which is not in a high traffic area. Then tune out everyone around you as well as the other works and draw until your heart is content. Not only will this expand your time, but you will get to know the work much more intimately by having to interpret it on your two dimensional white page.

My daughter recently asked that we go to the American Museum of Natural History in New York so she could draw a skeleton of a small bird. While she was busy doing that (actually it was a snake skeleton), I went down to a corner of the South America exhibit and drew designs from the pre-Columbian/pre-Incan Chimu people of the Moche Valley, which is now in Peru. One of the designs, shown here with some added text, is pinned to my sons' bedroom wall and awaits their arrival from a month-long trip abroad.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

The Art of Peace Versus the Art of Conflict

by Drew Martin
After painting a mural on an outside wall of my house last night, an act which included me toppling off my makeshift scaffolding several times (once with a quart of bright blue paint comically falling down on top of me after I landed on my bum) I washed up and looked for good documentary to watch while I did some ironing.

A movie about murals naturally caught my eye: The Art of Conflict: The Murals of Northern Ireland. It is an excellent documentary, and surprisingly by Vince Vaughn and his sister Valeri Vaughn. I loved this film for its eye-opening look at a conflict I grew up hearing about, which the Vaughns guide us through by taking an upclose look at dozens of murals painted by both protestant unionists/loyalists (to England) and the Irish catholic nationalists/republicans. The endless clashes such as "Bloody Sunday" and "Bloody Friday" embroiled British troops, loyalist paramilitary groups, the Irish nationalist IRA, and many civilians. In total, more than 3,500 people were killed in shootings and bombings.

The republican murals more often than not work as a form of journalism that document their own sufferings through the events (even though they took more lives in Northern Ireland and in England then the combined toll of the British troops and loyalist paramilitary groups), while the loyalists painted their murals as memorials to their own who died as a result of the clashes, or as an aggressive show of force such as the one displayed here that reads, Prepared for Peace, Ready for War.

Whether or not you like the content and style of the artwork, you have to marvel at the ubiquity of the murals, the attention-grabbing colors and themes, and the sheer effort: these are not simply tagged walls with a few cans of spray paint, but well-planned and well-supplied efforts, complete with the proper construction scaffolding I could have used yesterday.

One thing that was really surprising was the detail of internment of the republicans and the arrest and imprisonment of both republicans and loyalists. While the side-by-side communities rarely mixed and kept their ways separate through segregation of schools and all other social functions, those arrested for crimes on both sides were integrated behind bars. This recipe for disaster is actually what led to peace talks.

The imprisonment of IRA-associated republicans led to the "Blanket Protest" and the "Dirty Protest." The Blanket Protest was when the new inmates refused to put on the prison uniform because they claimed they were not criminals but rather political prisoners so they walked around naked, and then started wearing blankets for clothing. This was followed by the Dirty Protest, which is when they smeared the walls of their cells with their own feces. Shown below are two inmates wearing blankets surrounded by such walls.

One of the recurring themes in the loyalist murals is the Red Hand of Ulster, as pictured second from top. It is less-commonly referred to as the Red Hand of O'Neill. More often, it is treated more stylistically as a blood-red, palm-facing-forward open right hand but this example is more telling of the story: back in pagan times the Kingdom of Ulster had no rightful heir so a boat race would determine the next ruler. The first "hand" to touch Ireland would be king. One of the losing contestants decided to cut off his hand and throw it ashore to beat out the leader. It is a myth the loyalist hold dear to in order to stake their claim of the region.

The movie ends on a very interesting note: what to do with the inflammatory images? While they were never meant to be lasting, since even during the conflict they were constantly changing. A final montage shows the before and after shots of the sides of buildings used for the murals with the conflict-based images, painted over with new, benign themes.

A Long Haul for Andy Warhol

by Drew Martin
The Warhol in Pittsburgh is a great collection of paintings, drawings, film and video, and sculpture (Brillo boxes and floating, silver rectangular clouds) by America’s most iconic artist, Andy Warhol. It’s worth the trip; in my case – a three-day, 800-mile road trip through the Appalachian Mountains, which cradle this scenic stretch of Route 80. 

My daughter, Olympia, and I visited The Warhol the weekend before his birthday. I had not given much thought to what the museum building might look like; perhaps a giant tomato soup can, or a big silver factory. It is, in fact, in a semi-ornate Beaux Arts edifice built in 1911 for the Frick and Lindsay Company, which dealt in oil well, mill and mine supplies. 

The kitty-corner parking lot attendant’s booth is more of what I had in mind: decorated in the style of a Brillo box. The seven stories of galleries in the museum house some of Warhol’s largest works but the enormous canvases are nicely balanced by much more intimate drawings. 

The museum and the trip made me think less specifically about pop/modern/contemporary art, and more broadly about the distances we travel to fulfill our cultural needs. It is essential to travel to museums and other countries in order to take in what they have to offer, and as an artist, it is important to make your own life and surroundings a cultural oasis.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Platinum Records, Polished Silver, and Polident

by Drew Martin
If you are a reader of this blog, you may have come to realize that I like to make bizarre connections between remote entities. This one here is perhaps the greatest stretch: the success of at least three music entertainers and the failed marriage of my aunt in the early 1970s represented here by a silver champagne cup from her wedding in 1969, inscribed with her ex-husband's n

Somehow the pariah's silver cup from the wedding got into my hands since no one else wanted it. I had it out on my art wall for years and then I thought the boyfriend of a coworker (who I hired five years ago) might like it since he is a graphic artist in the music industry.

I brought it inside in its blackened state and made a few attempts to clean it up with household substances: shaving cream, baking soda, and white toothpaste. These things helped but they did not remarkably transform it. But then I tried Polident (for dentures), which my wife had mistakenly bought instead of toothpaste years ago. It was amazing; took the tarnish off immediately.

After cleaning up the cup I hand-drew a diagram, similar to the one here, which shows the connection: My deadbeat uncle abandons his family when my cousins are toddlers. The girl cousin grows up and marries a cop. The boy grows up and befriends Nelly before he goes platinum and helps him get established. Together they start Apple Bottom Jeans, which inspires the hit Low by Flo Rida, featuring T-Pain. This advances Flo Rida's career and thereby puts Ke$ha on the map when she sings backup for his next hit Right Round, the remake of Dead or Alive's You Spin Me Round from 1985.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Face Time at the Storm King Art Center

by Drew Martin
I visited Storm King Art Center on the Sunday of this past Fourth of July weekend with my wife and youngest son, who just turned eight years old. I have been to this amazing, peaceful place several times before and so I was prepared to write again about what a great location it is to see art; in nature - unbound by the walls of galleries, and too expansive to ever feel crowded. But something peculiar and totally unexpected happened on this trip: I got trapped on a tram (pictured here, top) next to a couple that was making out inches from my face and rubbing up against me, and so my entire experience was adulterated by an excessive amount of PDA. It wasn't sexy or cool. It was awkward for all the families and retired couples on the tour.

My initial reaction was to tell them to get a room, which I didn't. I even envisioned shifting my weight a little on some of the turns so I could watch them tumble off into the nettles. Instead, I decided to document what it is like to look at work by artists such as Mark di Suvero and Alexander Calder with two people sucking on each others' faces, which blocks your view.

We initially walked around the grounds and looked at the temporary exhibit of work by Lynda Benglis but then my son wanted to ride the tram, which loops around the grounds. I would have preferred to walk but it was also fun to have the ride. On one side was my wife and son, and on my other side was an empty seat. Halfway through the ride the tram stopped to let off visitors and pick up the weary. Most groups did not consider the extra seat next to me because they wanted to sit together. But then a young hipster couple ran over to it. The guy threw their two, huge bags of picnic trash on the tram floor and sat down. His girlfriend jumped on his lap and they immediately started making out while leaning up against me. I felt like a loose headboard in an hourly hotel.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Words and Pictures

by Drew Martin
Yesterday I watched Words and Pictures, a romantic comedy set in a private high school in Maine in which a disheveled, middle-aged English teacher declares war on a demanding, middle-aged Art Honors teacher. Conceptually, the war is between words and pictures, and which has more impact. The battleground is the works of the two teachers and their students but it affects the whole school and it energizes the complacent kids to dig a little deeper in their minds and hearts. Unfortunately, the movie itself doesn't get very far beneath the surface of the topic because it is too general, safe, and obvious. At times it seems like it is trying to be Dead Poets Society; some references are blatant. None-the-less, I thoroughly enjoyed it as a summer watch and appreciated the attempt.

Both of the teachers are past their prime. The English teacher, played by Clive Owen, is a "drunken, art-wrecking bastard" according to the Art Honors teacher, played by Juliette Binoche, who he calls an "ice-cold bitch." His belligerency and inability to write a decent poem again is paired with her disabilities from rheumatoid arthritis.

One nice aspect of the film is that Binoche does more than just dabble at the easel. In one of the more dramatic painting scenes she lays her belly on a swivel chair and paints with the swing of the rotating seat. In another moment she uses a huge brush that hangs from a boom and has a counter weight. The setup is after a painter friend: Fabienne Verdier but all the work in the film is by Binoche.