Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Coast of Dreamland

by Drew Martin
I had a very interesting dream this morning. I was in a seaside village somewhere in the world. There were small houses and a very pebbly beach with chilly, overcast weather. Something unique about the locals was that their main past-time revolved around a musical instrument of sorts. They all owned one and kept it on the stoop in front of their houses. 

The contraption was about the size of a large accordion, which had a slot near the top where you placed your hand when you were swinging it. With an underarm bowling-throw gesture you pressed a lever inside when you were full-swing, and out came about six or seven nested containers made of a gourd-like hard shell, which were tethered to each other. The smallest one would make its way to the farthest point about 20 yards out, and the largest one would land about ten feet away. The people tossed these things on the pebbly beach near the water and then reeled them in. As they did so the hard, woody shells rubbed on the pebbles and emitted bizarre and abstract sounds. There was nothing melodic or rhythmic in the noises they produced but the locals had an ear for the right aesthetic qualities they were trying to achieve. For them this was the highest art form. 

Someone was showing me how to cast the containers and then a young man came by and inquired about me because the instrument I was using was actually taken from his front stoop. He was upset that I might damage it and was also offended that it had been removed from his home, as it was a symbol of pride in that community.

Pictured here is a drawing I made of the dream after awakening this morning.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Op in Oppenheimer

by Drew Martin
I just finished (slow, focused reading + skimming) American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. My father is a nuclear physicist so the subject interested me on a personal level but I also wanted to know more about the man who unleashed the atom’s potential. Specifically, I wanted to get a glimpse of the kind of person who could be so smart but cause so much destruction.

The first half of the book is about Oppenheimer’s life and education, and the development of the atomic bomb, and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The second half of the book is about Oppenheimer’s attempt to head off a nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union, the witch hunt brewing for his association with the communist party, and losing his government security clearance.

Although there was much moral debate during the Manhattan Project, the scientists, military, and civilians who supported the project believed they had to build the bomb before the Nazis. Many of the scientists had come from or, like Oppenheimer, studied in Germany so the U.S. side intimately knew  what their “enemy” counterparts knew because they had studied with each other and were on a first-name basis.

Max Born, a professor from Göttingen lamented, “It is satisfying to have had such clever and efficient pupils, but I wish they had shown less cleverness and more wisdom.”

A new level of consciousness was raised when the project continued even after Germany surrendered, and Japan was just about to give up. The thinking then switched to the notion that the bomb had to be used no matter what by the end of World War II, otherwise the next war would be fought exclusively with nuclear bombs. That is a tough justification for killing so many civilians, especially for someone who attended the Ethical Culture School in New York, where the students “were infused with the notion that they were being groomed to reform the world, that they were the vanguard of a highly modern ethical gospel.” Robert was one of their star students. Ethics were taught in a Socratic-style seminar where students discussed specific social and political issues.

Oppenheimer read Plato and Homer in Greek, and Caesar, Virgil and Horace in Latin. He was so smart that he skipped several grades and was regarded as precocious. When he was nine years old he told an older cousin, “Ask me a question in Latin and I will answer you in Greek.”

Oppenheimer was also a social misfit. He was easily agitated and anxious. Once, while at school in Cambridge, he tried to poison his head tutor with a laced apple. A French psychoanalyst said he was suffering a “crise morale” associated with sexual frustration. He prescribed “une femme” and a course of aphrodisiacs.

To many people’s surprise Oppenheimer grew into a very capable and charming man. The year before his death, at Princeton’s commencement where he received an honorary degree, he was hailed as a “physicist and sailor, philosopher and horseman, linguist and cook, lover of fine wine and better poetry.”

He was, in fact, an extraordinary combination of science and humanities. His conscious was affected by his readings, which ranged from the Bhagavad-Gita to Proust. From the latter he learned “indifference to the sufferings one causes…is the terrible and permanent form of cruelty.” But Oppenheimer was not indifferent. He was aware of the suffering he had caused others but he did not buckle with guilt.

Oppenheimer died from throat cancer (he was a heavy smoker) at the age of 62. It was a helpless end. His wife confided to a friend, “His death was pitiful. He turned into a child first, then an infant. He made noises. I couldn’t go into the room; I had to go into the room, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t bear it.” 

As always I look sideways at my readings and look at what is relevant to this ongoing theme of art and media. One of my favorite lines was how Oppenheimer expressed that the best way to send information is bundled in a human being. Certainly he had firsthand experience of this from all of  the great minds he studied with and met, and from his own travels and lectures.

Concerning the arts, he had a very interesting start. He was, by all standards, pampered and privileged. His father Julius emigrated from Germany in 1888 and became a wealthy “fabrics” man in New York. He was also an art lover and he spent his free time roaming the art galleries and museums in New York. Through this interest he met the woman to become his wife and mother of Robert, Ella Friedman, a fetching young painter with a spring-loaded artificial thumb. She had studied the early Impressionist painters in Paris, and taught art at Barnard College. By the time she met Julius, she was an accomplished painter and gave private lessons in her rooftop studio in New York.

Sometime after Robert’s arrival, Julius moved his family to a spacious eleventh-floor apartment at 155 Riverside Drive, overlooking the Hudson River at West 88th Street. The apartment, occupying an entire floor, was exquisitely decorated with fine European furniture. Over the years, the Oppenheimers also acquired a remarkable collection of French Postimpressionist and Fauvist paintings chosen by Ella. By the time Robert was a young man, the collection included a 1901 “blue period” painting by Pablo Picasso entitled Mother and Child. A Rembrandt etching, and paintings by Edouard Vuillard, André Derain, and Pierre-August Renoir. Three Vincent Van Gogh paintings – Enclosed Field with Rising Sun (Saint-Remy, 1889), First Steps (After Millet) (Saint Remy, 1889) and Portrait of Adeline Ravoux (Auvers-sur-Oise, 1890) – dominated a living room wallpapered in gilted gold. Sometime later they acquired a drawing by Paul Cézanne and a painting by Maurice de Vlaminck. A head by the French sculptor Charles Despiau rounded out this exquisite collection. The Oppenheimers spent a small fortune on these works of art. In 1926, for instance, Julius paid $12,900 for Van Gogh’s First Steps (After Millet).

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Fine, Totally Fine

by Drew Martin
Fine, Totally Fine (Zenzen daijobu) is a neo-slacker Japanese love-story from 2008 with 1960's new wave tendencies. It is both utterly silly and brilliant, and had me burst-out laughing in a few parts. Though it got mediocre reviews and viewers complained it is painfully slow, I would rank it as one of my favorite films; on level with Daisies.

A lovely Yoshino Kimura plays Akari Kinoshita in the movie, a socially awkward, totally spastic young woman who spends much of her time spying on and drawing a homeless woman who makes crazy trash sculptures. She is constantly eating dildoey fish paste sausages, which she keeps in her pocket and offers to strangers. When she gets a job in a hospital her klutziness is amplified: she breaks her finger pushing an elevator button, and slips on blood while cleaning up after an operation. Despite her flaws, two young men (friends about to turn thirty and want to get more serious in their lives) fall deeply in love with her. One of them is a young hospital administrator who hired her despite the fact that she showed up for her interview bloody and muddy (she was attacked by tourists after she dropped and broke their expensive camera when she was trying to take their picture).

The other courter, the friend of the administrator, is the hapless son of a depressed used-book store owner. He is obsessed with blood and gore and dreams of making an extreme haunted house. The administrator helps place Akari at the bookstore when she loses her job at the hospital, and his friend immediately falls in love with her. The bookstore is a more forgiving environment for Akari, which she decorates with her homeless woman paintings.

Most of the smart humor (there is also a lot of raw humor too) is either a visual sequence, like when Akari runs to press the elevator button, and her finger impossibly snaps back at a right angle. Or it is a visual punchline to banter. 

In one of the last scenes the two friends, who have lost Akari to a sensitive art restorer, visit the young couple in Nara, where her boyfriend moved to restore statues of Buddha. The four of them sit to share food and drink in the couple’s apartment. They talk about what the former courters want to see in Nara, and they play a drawing game.

The administrator compliments Akari on her drawing and passes the pad to his hapless friend who has to draw something that begins with the Japanese character, Ra. When he presents the drawing for the others to guess, the administrator laughs “What’s that?”

Akari looks closely and guesses “A fat snake…the legendary tsuchinoko?”  Together, they keep guessing in bewilderment…"A bird?...a monster?.." The friend is offended and says “It’s a camel! Rakuda.” 

The administrator taunts him but Akari’s boyfriend leans in, inspects the drawing and says “But I like the picture. Whether it looks like a camel or not, it’s an interesting shape.” The drawer is honored and proudly holds out his hand and he and the boyfriend shake, which is a total acceptance of all that has happened and acknowledges that Akari has found the right guy.  The picture is not actually shown until the very end, to conclude the scene.

In the next and final scene, several hours later, the four friends are still in the same spot. It is nighttime and the boyfriend and the hapless guy are sleeping where they were once sitting on the floor. Akari and the administrator sit across from each other. She thanks him but he does not understand. Of course she means “for everything” because he was the first one to reach out to her and to lead her to her boyfriend. But instead of this being said and deepening, the conversation turns toward pickles. She leaves the room to get more for the administrator, and he looks around her place. 

Over his shoulder is one of the homeless woman’s sculptures, a picture of the woman by Akari, and one of her boyfriend (half his face has a large red birthmark) which is significant because previously she only drew the woman. Then we see a few more areas he would observe: a work space with sculptures of Buddha, Akari’s crayons and pastels, a couch flanked by more of the homeless woman’s sculptures (she was institutionalized), and finally the last shot: the friend’s drawing of the camel, torn from the notepad and pinned to a beam.

The actors are well-cast and stay in character roles that are spared from being caricatures by the writer and director of this film, Yosuke Fujita. Fujita is a brilliant genius. His sets and props are intimate but never too precious, which can be said about the experiences of the film: Fujita has a thing for used-book stores and was once a janitor in a hospital, which explains the detailed level of humor that comes out in those scenes.

Click here to watch the trailer for Fine, Totally Fine, although I do not think it is a good sampling.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Kiki Dreams

by Drew Martin
Two nights ago I dreamt that I was at the new Whitney Museum of American Art during a move-in period for the artists who needed to fabricate their work on site, or were there to oversee the installation of their pieces. Though the new Whitney at the High Line is at least twice the size of the Breuer building, it was much grander and more open in my dream. At one point I reached down to feel the rough, yet-to-be-polished stone floor (the actual floor will finished with reclaimed century-old pine planks), which was ribbed like a raked Japanese rock garden.

I was following Kiki Smith around, who was looking at the installation of bronze-cast goats she had made for the room, which she complained were too high. Instantly, they lowered and she moved into a well-lit atrium space. I followed her wondering if she was referencing Picasso's goat Esmeralda. She climbed up into a boxy cart with glass sides – something like a vendor’s booth for selling popcorn on the street. In it she was naked and looked a bit pickled in formaldehyde, and her body was contorted and dwarfed into a crude totem-like form. Her privies were large and engorged as if she was giving birth. None-the-less, she gave an impressive speech to a small crowd sitting on the ground. When she got out, she was back to her normal self and we started talking about something, but that part I do not remember. There was a young woman there with white-gold locks; I wondered if it was her daughter, niece, or some other relations.

Pictured here, detail of My Blue Lake by Kiki Smith.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Sister From Another Planet: Under the Skin with Scarlett Johansson

by Drew Martin
Before I watched the fairly new sci-fi movie Under the Skin, which is set in Scotland and features Scarlett Johansson, I saw the trailer. In it there is an LA Weekly quote, "A genuine revelation. We may finally have an heir to Kubrick."

After seeing it last night, I would say that's true even though that remark was probably inspired by a lot of deliberate Kubrick setups, especially from 2001: A Space Odyssey, such as his details of alignment and symmetry, abstract sequences, glowing white other world, free-floating goners, and sometimes painfully slow scenes.

Despite some obvious references, the whole film feels unique, and will certainly be the source of a lot of knock-offs, as you see following other groundbreaking movies such as The Matrix.

For me this was a little bit of The Brother From Another Planet meets 
Mary Howitt's 1829 poem The Spider and the Fly. The first line of the poem is "'Will you walk into my parlour?' said the Spider to the Fly." The cunning spider ensnares a naive fly through seduction and flattery. It is a cautionary tale about flattery and charm disguised for evil intentions.

Johansson is the perfect seductress, totally unemotional until her typical sultry charm is required to draw men into her tarry lair, in which they mindlessly sink, and are sucked of their innards. What I really like about this film is that such scenes, which sound cheesy, are handled with that numbing Kubrickesque dreaminess, and all the details about what is going on are never provided so you can fill in the blanks. This may be what saves this film from an onslaught of imitations: it is hard to copy something that is intentionally left out.

I really like the focus in this movie on the meaning of layers of clothing for sensitivity to our surroundings (a fur coat, a wetsuit, a borrowed jacket from a friend), and human skin as the thin membrane that it is: the undermost garment of fashion and the outermost layer of a person. The men that only want Johansson's flesh are pitted for their own. But then she seduces a young man with facial deformaties, played by Adam Pearson who has neurofibromatosis, which causes excess body tissue and non-cancerous tumours, as it did more excessively in Joseph Merrick, also known as the Elephant Man.
 She traps him then lets him go after staring at herself in the mirror, which is the moment she breaks from her prescribed routine and tries to achieve an unattainable human life. In a subsequent scene where a fully-naked Johansson examines her human form, she looks at her body in the mirror as if her skin is a new, beautiful dress.

Click here to watch the trailer for Under the Skin.

Bettie Page Reveals All

by Drew Martin
I have a girl-friend who is obsessed with Bettie Page (1923 - 2008) so I have seen a lot of the "Queen of Pinup" but I knew little about her including a rough start with a father who sexually abused her and her sisters, and a mother who rejected her. I also did not know about her demise after she stopped modeling in her early thirties, such as her obsessed guilt for her nude pictures that drove her deeper into a repressed Christianity, failed relationships, and ten years in a Florida mental hospital where she was heavily medicated and given shock therapy.

When Page was finally tracked down she was living on Social Security and a bit confused about her cult status that took off in her absence, at first with men who were, of course, interested in her remarkable figure and photogenic personality, then by young women who loved her sexual power and playfulness.

While Page was really one of the main influences on cracking open the sexual revolution of the 60s, the irony is that it is the repression of the 50s that finally led to her retreat. She was pulled into the national witch-hunt against pornography and was personally condemned when a teenager killed himself while looking at one of her bondage photos. Most of Page's work were bikini shots, some nudes, and bondage photos that were requests from paying customers: middle-aged men who were mainly lawyers, doctors, and politicians.

The majority of Pages images came from the camera club shoots (pictured second from bottom), Irving Klaw's studio - where the fetish images were taken, and Bunny Yeager (pictured top with Page at Little Africa in Florida).

The mugshot here (pictured second from top) was taken after an ex-husband called the cops on her. Page, a paranoid schizophrenic, had returned to his home, commanded him and his young boys to stare at a picture of Jesus on the wall, and held a knife to them with the threat that she would "cut out their guts" if they took their eyes off Jesus.

One of the people in her life who helped rescue her from poverty in her later years was Hugh Hefner. Page was Playboy's 
Miss January in 1955. Hefner made sure that she was legally represented in the commercial world where her images and likeness lined other people's pockets. Interestingly, her trademark bangs came from the suggestion of a Brooklyn policeman who saw her walking on the Coney Island boardwalk. You don't have to look too far to see Page's influence: Katy Perry, as an example, copies the look and wardrobe details.

One of Page's boyfriends, Richard Arbib, was considered the top designer of the day (one of his car designs is pictured middle) but some of the most lasting influences of design from the 50s were Page's outfits. Most of the swimsuits (pictured second from bottom), bikinis, lingerie, and other wild and revealing outfits including her skimpy leopard print dress (pictured top) were Page's creations, which designers stole and reproduced.

(Pictured bottom right, is Page in her heart lingerie design, and a Victoria's Secret model, left, in an outfit designed by Chantall Thomass for a Bettie Page-inspired collection)

The movie Bettie Page Reveals All is a straightforward chronological documentary. It is not particularly well made but it is all-inclusive and is filled with amazing shots of Page, and most interestingly, much of the narration comes from an audio interview with a hoarse, elderly Page. The contrast of the young fleshy images and the retired drawling voice has an effect that adds to this tale of youth and beauty, and aged celebrity culture.

Click here to watch the trailer for Bettie Page Reveals All.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Boy with Apple and a Pseudo-Schiele in The Grand Budapest Hotel

by Drew Martin
Wes Anderson’s films are preciously stylized so even if they have nothing to do with art, they are still very artsy.

In his most recent production The Grand Budapest Hotel starring my doppelganger Ralph Fiennes, a stolen painting is central.

This is a familiar fiction: the hotel is set in the mountains of the “Republic of Zubrowka,” which is a quasi-Austro-Hungarian Empire state. Most of the film locations are actually around Görlitz, Germany, which borders on Poland and is a nudge above the Czech Republic. Żubrówka is actually the name of a popular Polish Bison Grass Vodka. A more obvious made-up place for a gas station scene is Fuelitz.

Likewise, a you-cannot-put-your-finger-on-it (because it is part of the tale) Mannerist painting titled Boy with Apple is bequeathed by a Madame D to Fiennes, who plays meticulous old-world concierge. This inheritance is questioned so Fiennes and his side-kick lobby boy, Zero, steal the masterpiece. In its place above a mantel, Zero hangs what seems to be an Egon Schiele drawing, but that too is made up.

Boy with Apple was created for the film by Michael Taylor, an English painter who actually has four of his paintings in the National Portrait Gallery in London.

Film director Wes Anderson approached me in 2012 to paint a fictional Renaissance portrait to be titled 'Boy with Apple' for his next film The Grand Budapest Hotel. The plot pivots around the theft and recovery of a priceless portrait by Renaissance master Johannes Van Hoytl. Intrigued by the script and surprised to hear that he intended to commission a real portrait, I decided to come onboard. For inspiration Wes bombarded me with a bewildering selection of images by Bronzino, 17th Century Dutch painters, Durers, all kinds of stuff, even some Tudor portraits. I found this terribly confusing at first until I realized that each image contained some required element that had to be worked into the painting. He clearly knew exactly what he wanted; it was just that nothing quite like it yet existed. It was an irresistible challenge.

Ed Munro, a stage school student, was cast as the sitter. Costumes were chosen and props hired (I provided the apple) and we started what was to be many weeks of work in a suitably atmospheric Jacobean house near my Dorset home. Wes had very bravely left me alone to work on the painting for a couple of months, but as the start of filming approached we began the final work on it together. Collaborating on a picture was new territory to me, but his extraordinary attention to detail (“ the little bit of paper on the wall?…..yes, yes we must have the little bit of paper!”), good humoured patience and faith in his script somehow made it all come out right.

The pseudo-Schiele was painted by Rich Pellegrino, a Boston-based RISD graduate.

Wes Anderson commissioned me to create a painting for his…movie The Grand Budapest Hotel. One thing that was clear about this piece was that it had to have a clear and direct message of what it was: “Two Lesbians Masturbating”. Another was that it was to look like an Egon Schiele. Now Schiele is one of my favorite artists, and ironically I had recently given a Schiele inspired assignment to one of my painting classes. As my Gramma says: “This is right up my alley.”

I poured over my Schiele books and examined how he achieved texture and line. As a fan of Schiele this was a great deal of fun. After much experimentation and a filled sketchbook I created seven final drawings and paintings. 

When Adrien Brody, who plays the son of the recently deceased Madame D, sees the pseudo-Schiele in place of the priceless Boy with Apple, he screams "What's the meaning of this shit?"

Michael Taylor quote source

Rich Pellegrino quote source

Thursday, July 17, 2014

I Saw Her Across A Crowded Room

by Drew Martin
I saw her across a crowded room of the small gallery. She caught my eye from the moment I entered the art space on the evening of a buzzing opening. I beelined through the dense conversations to meet her face to face. There was something in her appearance that made me feel as if we had much in common. It was a look of which I would never tire. She was wearing yellow and was shapely like no other. I asked her who she was but got no response. Finally, someone in the gallery told me her name: Frame #24 by Nick McPhail.

I think entering a room full of art is very much like entering a room full of people. You immediately sum up the contents, pick your favorites, and engage with them. An art opening combines both. Bashfully shy in a new crowd, I tend to focus on the art. This is how it was tonight, when I went to the opening of the show titled Recurrence, featuring Edgar Arceneaux, Lauren Fensterstock, Colter Jacobsen, Ariana Papademetropoulus, and Nick McPhail. The show is curated by Luisa Aguilar Solis and Georgia Horn at the Fridman Gallery on Spring Street in SoHo, NYC.

When I saw Frame #24 I immediately liked it for many reasons. It looked like a pencil, a banana, and/or a schoolbus that had converted to art. I also really like paintings that are moving towards sculpture because there is something very evolutionary about them. But I am not particularly crazy about paintings that compete with sculpture, like some of Frank Stellas large wall works. By contrast, Frame #24 makes me think that if I come back tomorrow it might look a little different.

While writing this I wondered whether or not my initial attraction to Frame #24 was due to the fact that it looks so familiar, and has a childhood connection, which I tuned into because I felt a bit awkward in a new place for me. If that is the case then I really need to start looking at art more from a standpoint that first questions why I like or do not like something. 

Pictured here are some of Nick McPhail's paintings on display, left to right, top: Frame #24, #31, #26, #1, and left to right bottom: Frame #21, #13, #30, #32.

Ode to Rodney Mullen

by Drew Martin
What music most influenced skateboarding? Punk rock? Grunge? Actually, I would say classical, specifically Beethoven.

Rodney Mullen (pictured here in all three images), the savant of the Bones Brigade skateboard team who invented the 
flatground ollie, kickflip, heelflip, impossible, and 360-flip (moves that opened the doors for street skateboarding) grew up with a mom who was a concert pianist. When he picked up skateboarding, his father poured him a concrete slab, put a roof over it and installed lighting. It is where young Mullen would practice his moves from 2 – 5 am, partly because it was the coolest time of day in steamy Florida, where he grew up, but also because it was his alone time to focus.

Mullen was labeled as a troubled kid, possibly autistic, and he rarely talked. He said everyone spoke in whispers at home. He loved classical music, especially Beethoven, but it was through skateboarding that he expressed himself. It became his voice.

"What makes us all do what we do at a high level is an inspiration that comes so deep. It’s all so like a controlled desperation. But if you can’t tap into that, then it just extinguishes. And you can’t do it through here (tapping on his skull) it has to seep way down in there." (moving his finger down his chest)

Mullen was amazed that Beethoven pushed himself into isolation once he became deaf, but explained that this is when he became himself. Mullen says, “Don’t let anything poison your individuality. Be away, break away. Look inward, not outward.” Mullen acknowledges, “My biggest blessing was being in isolation.”

Mullen came of age in a time when the skateboarding world was divided between punkish vertical riders and goofy freestyle, which was a throwback to how skateboards were first marketed like yo-yos. Mullen did freestyle but when he showed up at competitions everyone stopped what they were doing to watch him. Kids around the world are doing his moves every second of the day.

You do not associate philosophy with skaterboarders but Mullen is simply profound.

“I spend a lot of time in the stacks in libraries, and you’re looking at these stacks of unreadable masterpieces that men devoted their lives, standing on the shoulders of geniuses before them. Bertrand Russell, Principia Mathematica, and all these things that – who will read those? How will they change society? How do they really factor into things? And me? I was able to contribute with a lot of tricks. Those tricks now have names and those tricks factor into what everybody else does. In a very meaningful way, I have helped create a vocabulary by which this community communicates. I mean, you can hear people chat, listen to how skaters talk. These are all words and expressions. Things that we created. It’s our language but it’s also physical. And it helps define us as individuals, how we fit within that framework, and it helps define the community itself. And so, when I look and I think of the contribution of all these geniuses, and the smell and the browning paper of these dusty books that no one will read, I think that I am so rich and what I have done has meaning."

Mullen concludes this baroque reflection with a mental lapse..."So I don’t know what that answers. Where did we start?"...and he and the interviewer start laughing. 

Quotes from the documentary, Bones Brigade: An Autobiography. Click here to watch the trailer.

P.S. Not only do Rodney Mullen and I share a birthday, August 17, but...three years his junior, I was conceived in the town where he was born. Whoa.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Found Memories

by Drew Martin
The Netflix blurb for Found Memories is - Life in a quiet village rolls slowly from one day to the next with little excitement -- until a young photographer named Rita arrives. 

Photography, by and large, is the most social of all the visual arts, so when I clicked on this Brazilian flick I expected the arrival of the photographer to spice things up, bring people together etc...but even though she does this to some degree, it is more about her becoming part of the place. It is a village in which appreciating the present is about taking in the past.

Rita is played by the lovely Lisa Fávero who ends up in the near ghost town, which she romanticizes as a place like her father used to tell her about. She kneads bread before dawn with the old widow who reluctantly hosts her, drinks cachaça in the middle of the night with one of the few loners who make up the tiny population, and questions the local priest why the graveyard (which she wants to photograph) is locked. At a post-church service meal Rita makes a toast with her little metal cup of cachaça. A shopkeeper says drinking is a man's vice. She asks what are the women's vices, and the priest responds - "To cry, to bear children, to sew, to pray."

Perhaps the most visually interesting thing about this film is that even though Rita has a modern camera, most of the pictures she takes are with pinhole cameras she makes from boxes and pots. She develops those pictures at night in her room, which serve as a visual narrative in a couple parts of the movie. It was smart to include the pinhole camera and the chemical bath film development because they are unhurried processes and complement the pace of the movie.

This is a very, very, very slow movie, which uses the first twenty two minutes to show the uneventful daily routines before Rita is introduced. The only real upbeat part comes at an 
hour and seventeen minutes into the movie when we see her dancing in the pitch black night to her iPod with Franz Ferdinand's Take Me Out blasting. And this is followed five minutes later by a lively evening dance outside, which everyone attends.

Although this is not really a movie about photography, it is an important theme. I love when the old widow talks about the past, when a portrait photographer came through their village and everyone dressed up. She says, "...
even the dirtiest ones looked noble." 

When some senior citizen villagers are assembled by Rita for a shot on a bench, one of them protests, "There's no one to leave pictures to." And tragically, in another scene, the old widow tells Rita that her son died when he was one year old because the person taking care of him put him on top of the cupboard so she could take his picture, but he fell off and died of complications the next day.

Click here to watch a trailer for Found Memories.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Conceptual Art is a Two-Way Street

by Drew Martin
Gavin Brown and Maccarone are neighboring galleries that are a hop, skip, and a jump from my work. I do not make a special effort to go there for openings and such - it is more like running errands. I had a few minutes at lunch today so I stopped by on my way to D'Agostino's for some cheap sushi.

My favorite space of the two galleries today was the front room at Gavin Brown, part of Ash's Stash by Oliver Payne and Nick Relph. It has the white glow of a Kidrobot store, but on display here are clusters of assemblages that have a lot of sneakers as well as an equal amount of Tamagotchis.

Typically, the garage-sale approach to installations does not do much for me. I do not think it is groovy when an artist drags all of his crap into a gallery. It's's lazy. My attitude about this reminds me of an interview I once read with a cougar who said that when a young guy asks her to come back with him to his pad she asks, "Is it clean?"

Ash's Stash works because it is as if some messy bachelor was expecting guests so he cleaned up really well but did not know what to do with his junk so he made little arrangements out of everything and happened upon some aesthetically pleasing gems while doing so. And, best of all, many of them simply make you laugh.

When I left the galleries to continue on with my errands, I passed by some bulk items being discarded, which included rectangular shelving, one board with a rounded end, and part of a picket fence gate. These items were leaning up against a metal gate backed by a high picket fence. As usual, I stopped and took a picture and walked away as I posted a square of it to Instagram.

I pass this kind of crap all the time and I usually take pictures but today I had a kind of epiphany. Junk art has a long history. Van Gogh painted a rubbish pile, Rauschenberg sphinctered a stuffed Angora goat with a rubber tire
, Duchamp displayed urinals and snow shovels, etc. The readymades, and the chotchkie arrangements have always declared two things: the first is that anything can be art but the second (which is totally contradictory) is that the iconoclastic artist who gathered and used everyday materials elevated them and did so with a kind of command that his talent gave him artistic license so he should therefore be credited and rewarded.

The real effect on society of all of this is not a takeaway from an art show that played on these themes, or some relationship with such objects when they were on display in a museum or gallery, but a way of seeing with which we return to the world around us that allows us to see things differently, whether that be in the appreciation of a design of a household object or about the relationship of objects (like in the street picture, which I took today - bottom) 

Sunday, July 6, 2014

O Bruegel, Where Art Thou?

by Drew Martin
I recently watched Museum Hours by Jem Cohen, which I really liked it. You could say it is a film about a guard at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria who develops a friendship with woman from Montreal who is in town to sit with a comatose relative in the hospital, but it is really a film about Pieter Bruegel the Elder, the Flemish Renaissance painter best known for his landscapes and peasant scenes, and iconic paintings such as Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, and The Tower of Babel.

This is my favorite kind of movie: contemplative, intelligent, and behind the scenes. The Canadian is the perfect accidental tourist and her befriended guard is excellent as a nonchalant, back alley guide. The most brilliant thing about this movie is the use of segue. In one scene, a series of shots focus on details of a Bruegel painting with the guide’s voice listing the objects “…discarded playing cards, a bone, a broken egg…”, and then the images switch to nondescript ground shots in Vienna, as he continues “…a cigarette butt, a folded note, a lost glove, a beer can.”

This is when Bruegel really takes over and we understand that Cohen is telling us that the Bruegel room, in which the guard spends a lot of his time, is not stuck in the 16th century but is part of a continuum, and while there are many other works of art shown throughout the film, and many moments outside of the museum in greater Vienna, they all tie back to the inclusiveness of even the smallest details captured by Bruegel.

Close-ups of the museum goers still faces are compared to portraits of sitters who died centuries ago, and for one brief scene three visitors appear nude in the galleries, which for me means that without being able to peg an era by fashion, not much has changed in humans and we are still the same fleshy creatures as portrayed in the old paintings.

The transitions are numerous but subtle and never overplayed. A collection of museum items switches to a scrappy flea market, and the audio guide describing an Egyptian scroll plays on while the camera looks over the detritus of Vienna.

The most random shots, like B-roll of kids skateboarding under a bridge, take on Bruegel characteristics. One of the skater youth pictured here, wearing the blue-striped hoodie (third from top), might as well be sitting on the edge of a wooden horse-drawn cart or on a tree stump in a Bruegel painting.

My favorite transition is from a shot of small, old museum portraits to people pictures taped to the wall in a local pub. While the present live shots in the film pull the past forward, these photographs remind us how quickly our present slips into the past, thereby archiving our daily activities to be looked at with the same curious eye with which we view the subjects of past eras.

Some of the best commentary from the guide is regarding school groups. He remarks that the teenage students are always bored and impudent but they perk up when they see the paintings of decapitations because of their horror value, especially Medusa’s severed head of snakes. 

He says they are also interested in nudity and comments that they can access all the free porn they desire on the Internet but questions “…where else [but at the museum] can one look at such a thing without shame?" 
Not only does the guard have the advantage of seeing countless visitors to help him take a pulse of society but as a guard he has a special invisibility status.

Despite the wealth of art and artifacts in the museum, the guard tells us that the most common question he gets is for directions to the bathroom. The parallel Bruegel detail to this is when a guest lecturer in the Bruegel room points out to her small group a man defecating by a stream in The Tower of Babel

A polite visitor who needs the WC will be told how to quickly get there but the guard says that he and the others are tired of the rude visitors, who they deal with by sending them on the "scenic route."

Click here to watch a trailer for Museum Hours.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Jeff Koons Restrospective At The Whitney: Shiny Reflections But No Self-Reflection

by Drew Martin
This afternoon I went to the Jeff Koons restrospective at The Whitney Museum of American Art. It is a great show to take reflection-selfies in the shiny surfaces of his manufactured sculptures (top), or if you want to see what pornography looks like when it is printed on oversized canvases, and especially if you have a thing for vacuum cleaners.

Snark aside, I have always been impressed by Koons' initial idea to cast inflatable objects; I believe he was the first, and he does this well. I like these pieces the most when the result is a reinvented form as we see in Rabbit (second from top - left), and least when they simply mimic the original, as we see in Lobster 
(second from top - right). Similarly, I think Balloon Dog, which is manufactured to take the form of an oversized inflated and twisted balloon (but does not try to look like a real balloon), is an interesting unintentional evolution to equestrian statues.

Koons is nearly fifteen years my senior, but I feel much closer in age to him, mainly because I also grew up looking to Salvador Dalí as the end-all-to-be-all of living artists at that time. Koons methodically set himself up to be a successful artist but he forgot about the spirit that we both admired.

The juxtapositions and visual narratives of the Surrealists were psychoanalytical experiments, or at least absurdities that had enough bite to create tension. Koons tries to emulate this but lacks the substance and edge. Take his constant lobster reference. It is a nod to Dalí’s lobster phone, and all of his other displays of the creature, typically lodged in the crotch of naked women.

The other great artists for Koons are Andy Warhol and Marcel Duchamp, from whom he learned that the rules of art are what you desire. This is not so much the case with
Dalí because he was, after all, a great painter and was deeply involved with the classically trained manual creation of his work. Koons is comfortable simply managing the process and letting other people get their hands dirty. The problem is that his sculptures are just objects, and his paintings are simply awful. Both are meticulously detailed but neither have an ounce of emotion in them.

I find all of his work, cold, boring, and lifeless. He uses symbols of life and emotions, such as (inflatable) flowers and (stainless steel) hearts, but they are totally divorced from what they are supposed to represent. It is as if his vocabulary is limited to clip art and stock photography, and he never builds up enough creative energy to achieve escape velocity from his superficial visual world.

Koons is a great business man and is committed to his brand, and I admire him for his conviction. I am also totally impressed that after a disastrous end to his first marriage, he rebounded with a devoted second wife and an army of kids. But what I am torn by is that I cannot love his art. It is as if you grow up listening to The Ramones and The Sex Pistols, and a peer of yours is just as into them as you are, and then he goes off and starts Green Day – commercially successful but a shadow of the seminal bands, and you are like “WTF, weren’t you listening?”

The real disappointment is not that I do not like the world of Koons but that his influence on the artworld has disillusioned me from what I think art can do and should be about. Of course meaningful art can still be made but when everyone goes gaga over schlock, values and expectations change. If art has to be scaled up and glossed over to make an impression then this means we are easily deceived. I think a good measurement of 
Dalí’s staying power is his Persistence of Memory (bottom). Take a look at it on the walls of MoMA. It is unbelievably small, and yet it is one of the most famous paintings in the world because Dalí had something to say in it

Koons will never produce a meaningful painting. He is not capable of it, no matter how big and complicated his attempt, or how many assistants he assigns to it. He has organized the production of a lot of shiny and impressive metal sculptures but even those do not go beyond luxury car showroom aesthetics, and everything else is trash.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Ethiopia: My Hunger Games

by Drew Martin
It is interesting that the country that I first associate with hunger, Ethiopia, because of the 1983-1985 famine that led to nearly half a million deaths, is home to one of my favorite cuisines. A good Ethiopian restaurant also defines for me a livable neighborhood, such as one I frequent in New York, and others I have visited in D.C., Boston, Cambridge, San Francisco, Berkeley, and Amsterdam.

The traditional dining experience is centered around one of my favorite food-related sculptural objects, the mesob (pictured second from top), a colorful, wicker basket/table with a conical lid, which is filled with a large plate covered with injera, a spongy bread that is something like an edible washcloth. The most authentic injera is grayish brown because of teff flour, but many restaurants serve a whiter, wheat-flour version, which is never as good as the teff injera. The injera is covered with different islands of mushy but delicious, legumes, vegetables, and meats (although vegetarian combinations are filling and satisfying on their own).

A world away in America, the mid-80s Ethiopian famine was not only on people’s minds because it got a lot of press here, but because it created a social response through popular media. The U.K.’s assembled Band Aid with the likes of Bob Geldof, Phil Collins, Bono, George Michael, Sting, Boy George, Paul McCartney, and David Bowie (plus others) sang their hearts out so people would reach into their pockets and donate to relief efforts. Their song Do They Know It’s Christmas? was created with good intentions but it was totally self-righteous, and offensive with a superiority theme and idiotic lyrics such as "And there won't be snow in Africa this Christmastime…Where nothing ever grows, No rain nor rivers flow…." 

Even worse was the album cover (pictured third from top) with a kitsch Christmas-themed collage of illustrations and vintage photographs of spoiled white kids in contrast to two poor and malnourished Ethiopian children, covered in flies, with what appear to be Pop-Tarts in their hands.

A U.S. approach followed on the heels of this with a slightly-better We Are The World, which was written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Ritchie, and featured a sea of performers including, Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon, Tina Turner, Billy Joel, Diana Ross, Dionne Warwick, Willie Nelson, Bruce Springsteen, Cyndi Lauper, Ray Charles, and Bob Dylan. But like the U.K. project, and despite raising a lot of money, this effort had its criticism and got lost in the hype/ego and fame of the performers.

Fortunately, the American view of Ethiopia has improved, and while not much is still known/discussed here, the stereotypes of great endurance runners, beautiful people, and delicious food are positive. While many people may not know Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee, fewer probably grasp that Ethiopian scientists have contributed to advances in satellite radio systems, superfast computers, and genetic engineering.

On a recent trip to Boston, I stayed at a dorm-like residence in a lively neighborhood in the South End. For my first night I ate at an Ethiopian restaurant around the corner, and for my second night I walked to Cambridge to go to an Eritrean restaurant I had passed on an earlier trip. When I mentioned to the waitress I had not tried Eritrean food before, she said it is basically Ethiopian food, and when I ordered a beer with my spinach and collard greens dish, they only had Ethiopian brews. Despite the familiar mesob and injera, I thought it was better in that it was spicier.

I told the beer specialist at my local liquor store back home about the beers I had, and how I was disappointed they did not serve Eritrean beer at the Eritrean restaurant. He mentioned the Frank Zappa quote:

You can't be a real country unless you have a beer and an airline. It helps if you have some kind of a football team, or some nuclear weapons, but at the very least you need a beer.

Ethiopia has more than a dozen beers. One of my favorite is a fairly new (2013) amber version of the St. George (pictured bottom). They also have Ethiopian Airlines. Eritrea has at least one beer, Asmara, as well as a fleet of planes for Eritrean Airlines, although it has been banned from flying into the European Union since 2012.

Listen/watch: Do They Know It's Christmas?

Listen/watch: We Are The World