Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory

by Drew Martin
Two nights ago I watched a remarkable documentary called Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory, which follows social worker Dan Cohen around America’s nursing homes in a quest to unlock the minds of people with dementia.

Cohen’s approach is simple but the results are mind boggling. He loads an iPod with the music the person loved most when he or she was younger, helps put on the headphones and explains how to turn on the device. The rest is magic: people who cannot recognize their own children, or even themselves in old photos all of a sudden are naming their favorite performers and songs, and start singing word for word. Even more incredible is that once these people are turned on they are much more lucid in general and can answer questions they seemed too distant to respond to prior to hearing the music.

One younger subject whose baby boomer husband looks after her at home, is a shadow of herself and cannot remember if the down elevator button of her apartment building is the one on top or bottom. She is dour and scared looking and does not know how to put the headphones over her ears without assistance, but once the Beach Boys start piping through, she jumps up and starts dancing as if she is in a bikini at a beach party and invites the camera crew to join in.

In addition to Cohen, we hear from a couple musicians and doctors about this phenomenon. Most notably is Oliver Sacks, the 
British-American neurologist and writer who took America by brain-storm in the mid 1980s with his book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. More relevant to the theme of this documentary is his 2007 book Musicophilia. Sacks chimes in throughout the film and explains that our memory for music is least affected by Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia. He also says that it is the back door to memory, which means you can access other memories once the part of the brain for music is stimulated. Sacks reminds the viewer that Immanuel Kant, the German philosopher from the 1700s, called music the "quickening art."

The once popular social question, "What's on your iPod?" might one day be a welcomed standard medical inquiry.

Sunday, November 16, 2014


by Drew Martin
I like the current show, MULTIPOLARITY by Reuven Israel, at the Fridman Gallery on Spring Street in SoHo because of its post-found object, post-pop nature, which means Israel is modern without being lazy or blatantly referential. He favors an exact industrious approach and is timeless.

For MULTIPOLARITY, Israel has made a series of curious high-glossed and multi-colored objects, which are unidentifiable in function but are all fairly simple shapes. Most of these forms, which are made of MDF plywood and coated with car-shop quality layers of paint, are fitted along copper-coated steel rods.

While the rods seem to just have an obvious structural role, they actually are much more important because they have tradesman feel to them 
like copper tubing in plumbing or copper wire in electrical work. This familiarity connects us with the sculpture on a practical level, which then leads us to have a look at the body of work not just from a pure aesthetic appreciation of the shapes, but that maybe these forms have function.

The conductive properties of the copper and steel give the sculptures an oversized transistor look, which makes you feel shrunken. At the same time, the objects are sometimes arranged in such a way that they reference axles, or better yet; barbells, which thereby give the pieces a very heavy feeling.

Surprisingly, this makes me think of two famous artists, who did the opposite: Calder, who gave his mobiles a lightness through movement, and Rodin, whose heavy bronzes had deep shiny surfaces that played with light in such a way that they can feel as light as impressionist paintings.

Most importantly, the rods establish alignment, and with that: symmetry and perspective lines. While there are many artists that come to mind in terms of this kind of structure, such as Sol LeWitt and Walter De Maria, I actually first thought about Stanley Kubrick’s use of symmetry in his film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. His alignment reflected a higher thought, which was meant to help bring order to Earthly creatures with random and base actions. What Israel offers us is this kind of direction but his interchangeability of parts also creates a playful, puzzle assembly to his work, which is actually his approach to the composition of the sculptures.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Barnes Raising and the Joy of Life

by Drew Martin
More than two years ago I wrote a brief review about the Barnes Foundation right after watching the documentary The Art of the Steal, and then I also explained a reference in that film about the looting in WWII with the details of another film, The Rape of Europa

Last week I took a quick trip to Philadelphia to visit the relocated Barnes, which totally blew me away. As one former student of the foundation verbally catalogues in the documentary...

They've got more Cézannes than that are in the entire city of Paris. There are 181 Renoirs, wall to wall, 59 paintings by Matisse. The Joy of Life is always cited in everyone's artbook because it is such an important painting in the history of art. Picasso, 46 [paintings], seven by Van Gogh, six by Seurat. The Seurat Models; now that really is sort of a spectacular thing that there is no equal for.

The new museum is unique in that it is very modern, and is a extremely well-designed and crafted building, and yet it maintains the linen-walled chambers of the structure Barnes had built in the nearby town of Marion, Pennsylvania.

The dense display of jaw-dropping paintings surprised me at every turn because I would see something that I just assumed was in the Louvre, MoMA or the Met. In the collection is Cézanne's Card Players, and as mentioned in the quote above Matisse's Joy of Life, which is one of the first Fauvist paintings, and the work that changed Picasso's life. After, and only after seeing it, did Picasso create Les Demoiselles d'Avignon.

Personally, I think the best way to see art, if the artist is alive, is in his or her studio with the artist present, surrounded by his or her inspirations, music, books, completed and unfinished works. How else could you fully appreciate someone like Mondrian than by seeing him in his tidy studio with even his easel at a right angle, where he might talk about his life governed by particular rules?

The paintings in the Barnes are shown alongside everyday objects including furniture, and (obsession for) door hardware: old hinges and locks. This creates a very different sensation than a typical gallery/museum, which isolates the artwork. For one thing, it is homier and more human feeling but what really affected me on this trip was how seeing so much art, so packed together, which is usually overwhelming for me, actually had a liberating effect. It makes you want to create art because in the flutter of images you get a real sense of creative experimentation. 

As far as the controversy of Barnes versus the establishment during his lifetime, the collection is greater than the personal conflicts and court rulings. Additionally, the anti-elitist drive that separated the collection from the downtown art world, was just another form of elitism.

This situation reminds me a lot of my recent post, Is the Man Who is Tall Happy? in which Noam Chomsky speaks about continuity, which is the mental ability we have to maintain our relationship the true nature of a character even if it is transformed into another creature, such as a prince turning into a frog. A very clear example Chomsky gives is of the Charles River outside his window at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts. There are many things you can do to alter the river, such as change its course, pollute it, or even freeze it over. Likewise the Barnes collection is no longer the man who assembled it, nor is it the old stone building in Marion or the new structure in downtown Philly, but rather it is the most impressive collection of post-impressionist art, and paintings of the first half of the 20th century, arranged in a specific way.

It should be seen without prejudices, and it should also continue its original purpose to educate students of art as well as the more casual visitor.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

MoMath: The Museum of Mathematics

by Drew Martin
Today I went to MoMath (The Museum of Math) on 26th Street in Manhattan, which looks out onto Madison Square Park, and is just a block south of MoSex (The Museum of Sex).

MoMath is a very engaging, hands-on, and very kids-friendly place. On top of that I do not think I have ever encountered such nice and involved staff.

MoMath is chockfull of interactive areas and displays, most of which have a kid-level attraction with a math professor thinking behind them, which means you get toddlers intuitively interacting with installations while their parents join in on a higher level.

MoMath occupies two floors: 0 at ground level, and -1 in the basement. Highlights include two, square-wheeled tricycles that ride smoothly over a bumpy surface made of radiating arches, and an illuminated floor maze that does not seem like much of a challenge until you realize you have to follow one rule to get to the finish point: no left turns.

I also loved a polypaint area, which has a traditional easel with little illuminated cans that the user dips a big paintbrush/stylus into and then applies that selection to a blank canvas (an interactive flat screen monitor). Unlike what you might anticipate to happen, the stroke gets translated into patterns and soon enough the canvas is rich with colors and sets of curves and lines.

One thing I really appreciated was how the details of the museum extended into the bathrooms: the two sinks in the men's room (pictured bottom) are pentagons at the surface level but triangles at the drain. There is also an advanced pattern with tiles on the wall. 

MoMath does a really good job making math-inspired interactive displays. If I were to add something it would probably be a display that could show how the various number systems work including Arabic, Roman, and Mayan numbers. Maybe there could be something like a wired abacus that would show the calculations behind the movements of the beads.

I see that the gallery section of the MoMath website has an interesting video series, called 
Math Encounters that I would like to watch. All three posted videos are all at least an hour and 15 minutes long:

1. Naked Geometry (81:01) 

2. Knot Theory, Experimental Mathematics, and 3D Printing (75:39)

3. Change of Perspective: How Math Helps Us See the World Differently (82:09) 

The second video, including knot theory reminds me of a guy I once sat next to on a flight returning to college. He was reading a tome titled On Knots. My understanding of knots was limited to boy scout hitches and so I did not think much more about them. I assumed Knots was an old English author I did not know about so I asked him who Knots was. Much to his amusement, he explained the math behind knot theory.

Here is the first paragraph of Wikipedia's first paragraph on this subject:

In topology, knot theory is the study of mathematical knots. While inspired by knots which appear in daily life in shoelaces and rope, a mathematician's knot differs in that the ends are joined together so that it cannot be undone. In mathematical language, a knot is an embedding of a circle in 3-dimensional Euclidean space, R3 (since we're using topology, a circle isn't bound to the classical geometric concept, but to all of its homeomorphisms). Two mathematical knots are equivalent if one can be transformed into the other via a deformation of R3 upon itself (known as an ambient isotopy); these transformations correspond to manipulations of a knotted string that do not involve cutting the string or passing the string through itself.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Toilet Papered Trees, Princess Pumpkins, and Amish All the Way

by Drew Martin
I always forget about Mischief Night (Cabbage Night, Goosey Night) until I go running Halloween morning and see the toilet papered trees. Pictured top, is a tree I passed before sunrise yesterday and then returned to an hour later for this photo. In the predawn, trees in such a state have a mysterious appearance, and if you do not think about the mean intent then they have a kind of adorned and festive look.

I have bittersweet memories of Cabbage Night as we called it when I was a kid. On one side it was one of the most exciting and rouge nights of the year because of the excused vandalism you could pull off. But once I was with a neighbor who was the son of a retired boxer from the military. Instead of going to the store and buying the typical assortment of shaving cream, toilet paper, and eggs he stalked another group of kids doing the same and then waited outside the store along the road, as I tagged along. When the kids came out, this neighbor started a confrontation, punched the leader of their little group in the face, and then took all of their supplies. It was really carnal and still shocks me when I think about it. 
Fortunately, my middle kid, a teenage boy, does not care to go out this night. 

This year I took off from work and went to my youngest kid's school Halloween day parade. It was amazing to see all the costumes the elementary school kids and their parents put together. The best was one kid who has some disabilities and is bound to an electric wheel chair, rolled through the parade decorated as a tank.

Another thing that caught my eye at the school was a princess pumpkin: totally white and bejeweled, pictured here, middle. I love that the girl who did this disrupted the whole orange/earthy feel of the pumpkin and transformed it into the rarefied object that perhaps never quite returned to its original form after serving as Cinderella's carriage.

I know some parents who do not let their children partake in Halloween because of cultural and/or religious reasons. On one side I understand their concerns but I also think this pagan holiday can be quite liberating. It is the one day of the year you can be whatever you want: men can be women, women can be men, little kids can be monsters or warriors or princesses.

In past years I have gone as a vague early American in honor of my first pre-Pilgrim, British relative who arrived to the Jamestown area in 1619 but most people thought I was trying to be Samuel Adams.

Last year was the first real Halloween in a couple years. The year prior was cancelled by Governor Christie because of the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, and the year before that was Snowpocalypse, when we had a blizzard and were without electricity for more than a week with freezing temperatures. Last year our family went to a party in town and I threw together a last minute costume: an alien cyclops, which had a Yo Gabba Gabba feel to it. I tried to stay in character but people did not want to talk to me when I tried to carry on a conversation with my alien language: a pattern of blips and bleeps.

This year I decided to put a little more effort into my costume, and to really use the day to explore a character I wanted to be - an Amish guy. The costume actually started with my straw hat that I wear out in the sun, especially when I am doing yardwork. One neighbor calls me Farmer Drew. I have a string that kind of holds the hat to my head but recently I was talking to another neighbor when it blew off and I told him I should get some elastic to loop around my chin so as to hold it on. He suggested an elastic Amish beard. So I ran with that, got a pair of suspenders from a lawyer at work (who insists they are braces) and then I put on old, black dress pants, and an old blue dress shirt to complete my Amish outfit, pictured here, bottom.

When I told people I was going to be Amish for Halloween, I got a lot of comments that I was being offensive but the truth is, there was no hint of mockery in it. I have always fantasized about the Amish and have loved visiting their lands in Lancaster County.

To prepare for my character I watched nearly five hours of Amish documentaries: one British series for their Channel 4 called Meet the Amish, and one BBC documentary called Amish, A Secret Life. The entirety of all five shows can be watched below.

Meet the Amish, is a reality show that follows five teenagers on Rumspringa, which is the letting-the-hair-down period for Amish youth before they decide whether or not they want to be officially baptized in the Amish church, and say goodbye to the conveniences, luxuries, information, and entertainment of the modern world. I have seen this kind of thing before but going to Britain was a twist. And like all the other versions where the show might have been set up to gawk at youth who many people would consider to be living under a rock, it actually turns out that you see how 
the more worldly hosts come across sometimes as privileged, unskilled, vulgar, petty, and immature.

These youth are followed through different locations, with a week in each spot. They start with hapless kids in South London who stay out of trouble by street dancing, spend time with an artist and her family in Kent, are pampered in a snobby castle in Scotland, and then hang out with communal surfers in Cornwall. They go to music festivities, raves, and the beach a couple times. They seem most at home when they can participate in hands-on tasks, such as when the two young Amish women take up the hem of a dress of a spoiled Scottish teen for her party, or when the three young Amish men build a chicken coop for the head of a Surf school. There is a combination of amazement and horror as they watch people dance, drink, play music, and talk about their loose relationships.

In Kent, the artist they stay with shows them her style of painting, dripping a mixture of acrylic black paint and glue with chopsticks onto large sheets of paper. The creation of art is something new to them and something they comment on wanting to explore more.

After the Meet the Amish series, I watched Amish - A Secret Life, which turned out to be a documentary that the BBC got more than they bargained for. The network set out to get a closeup look at an Amish family, even though it is forbidden to pose for pictures or movies. What ends up happening is that the young family they follow turns out to be part of a movement to redefine their Amish ways and label themselves as Amish Christians. They do things that are clearly against the elders wishes, which are grounds for excommunication and being shunned from the group. They mingle with former members who were shunned, and even go so far as to be rebaptized in the secret of the night. The young father of the family explains that it is not the Amish lifestyle that will make people happy but rather accepting their Christian faith, which need not be tied to the lifestyle.

What I liked most from all of these glimpses into the Amish life, is the way the youth react to seeing the ocean for the first time. On the way there they talk about what it must be like but are awed by its vastness when they finally see it in person. It was also extremely interesting to see their conviction in their belief. When we typically talk about people who believe in creationism and are extreme Christians, there is typically a right-wing political bashing that goes along with it, and we see it as a real ignorance in the face of scientific evidence. But when a beautiful young Amish girl talks about her belief in this world as god's creation it is hard to find fault with her because, for one thing - she is not looking at it in comparison to scientific evidence, and for another thing, I kept thinking how beautiful the world must be to her.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Is the Man Who is Tall Happy?

by Drew Martin
I just saw a film I had been hesitating to watch, Is the Man Who is Tall Happy? - an interview prompted by french filmmaker Michael Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Science of Sleep, Be Kind Rewind)  and Noam Chomsky, who is most popular for his political commentary and activism, and particularly for his book Manufacturing Consent.

Chomsky, however, is by education and career a linguist and cognitive scientist, which is what Gondry seems most interested in exploring, not because of a simplistic interest in languages but rather that deeper reasoning behind language as a cognitive tool.

The audio of the movie is the dialogue between Gondry and Chomsky, with occasional movie footage of either Chomsky alone or Chomsky and Gondry in the same frame, from the interview.

The title of the film comes from an language structure example Chomsky explains to Gondry about taking a sentence such as The man who is tall is happy....and about asking a child to make it into a question, which they consistently, and correctly reshape as Is the man who is tall happy?

To say that what Gondry visually creates for this movie is animation is doing him a disservice. Perhaps it can be seen as an illustration of the conversation, and I think Chomsky probably thought it was cute in that way, but Gondry is really doing something much deeper than that. At times his animation runs as a visual language parallel to the dialogue. It steps in as subtitles to aid his heavy accent, complete with edits and asides. Most importantly, its fluctuation of different purposes makes you really attuned to the visually cues.

I liked how Gondry tries to explain to the viewer the point of his unanswered questions. Chomsky is often a one-way street. He is literally a know-it-all, and seems to have little tolerance for what he views as inferior thinking. But Gondry has a lot of important questions, which I wished were answered by Chomsky.

That being said, I was quite surprised by one section when Chomsky was talking about the Frank Gehry designed building they were sitting in at MIT (pictured here at bottom). He said there are no right angles where the walls meet in the building. He offered what a friend explained; that it was as if they were in a three dimensional Piet Mondrian, which he used for his own analogy. How can someone so smart make such a comment. Not only were Mondrian's conclusive later paintings only about right angles: squares and rectangles, he even set up his studio so that everything was at a right angle, including his easel.

Thread Lines, and Head Drawings and Faces of War at the Drawing Center

by Drew Martin
I usually think about what a museum has to offer by the content of the shows but the Drawing Center in SoHo takes it to another level with superb curation of great exhibits related to drawing.

Drawing is my favorite, most intimate medium and has been a big part of my life, especially because my name is Drew, so I am always pleased when the Drawing Center expands that boundary of what drawing is, and in the case of the current show makes me realize that something else I really like, hand sewing, is part of this medium as well.

The main current exhibit is Thread Lines:

This group exhibition features sixteen artists who engage in sewing, knitting, and weaving to create a wide-range of works that activate the expressive and conceptual potential of line and illuminate affinities between the mediums of textile and drawing. Multi-generational in scope, Thread Lines brings together those pioneers who—challenging entrenched modernist hierarchies—first unraveled the distinction between textile and art with a new wave of contemporary practitioners who have inherited and expanded upon their groundbreaking gestures. 

The first thing you notice when you walk into the main gallery is an installation around the four cast iron support columns in the center of the room. It is a special project by Anne Wilson called To Cross (Walking New York), which is explained on the Drawing Center's website:

After discovering that The Drawing Center’s SoHo building was originally built in 1866 for the Positive Motion Loom Company, Chicago-based artist Anne Wilson conceived of her latest site-specific performance that will use the main gallery’s four central columns as a weaving loom. Recalling the physical structure and operations of the loom itself, the piece’s four participants “walk” around the twelve foot columns, carrying a spool of thread to form a standard weaving cross (a method used to keep warp threads in order). The durational performance, which takes place over the course of two months, will result in the fabrication of a five by thirty-four foot sculpture: a colorful cross composed of innumerable strands of thread.

On the back wall is a narrow mural with line drawings of fruit. This is highlighted with small rings of intensely detailed needlepoint that contain a reproduction of the source of the drawings with colorful and dense stitches that bring the original fruit to life in thread. And there are a dozen more needlework examples around the gallery that challenge the scale and presentation of what sewing can be, what thread can do, and once more what drawing is all about as an action and as an expression of lines.

In the back room is another, very different show called Head Drawings and Faces of War by Xanti Schawinsky, who was a first-generation Bauhaus artist. The drawings are amazing hybrids of machine and man, or at least personalities of man. They are also quite large and really well done but the problem I had with them is that you see them after walking through Thread Lines, which is a beautiful show with a lot of aesthetic sensations. So when I got to Schawinsky's work, the contrast was not a shocking difference that made me grasp the political meaning of the drawings but rather made me focus on the quality of them. They are powerful work done in a crucially important time, between 1941 and 1946 and I think they would have benefited from being part of a larger wartime show in the main gallery.

The list of participants in Thread Lines includes:

Mónica Bengoa (b. 1969, Santiago, Chile), Louise Bourgeois (b. 1911, Paris, France- d. 2010, New York, NY), Sheila Hicks (b. 1934, Hastings, NE), Ellen Lesperance (b. 1971, Minneapolis, MN), Kimsooja (b. 1957, Taegu, Korea), Beryl Korot (b. 1945, New York, NY), Maria Lai (b. 1919, Ulassai, Sardinia- d. 2013, Cardedu, Sardinia), Sam Moyer (b. 1983, Chicago, IL), William J. O'Brien (b. 1975, Eastlake, OH), Robert Otto Epstein (b. 1979, Pittsburgh, PA), Jessica Rankin (b. 1971, Sydney, Australia), Elaine Reichek (b. 1943, New York, NY), Drew Shiflett (b. 1951, Chicago, IL), Alan Shields (b. 1944, Herington, KS- d. 2005, Shelter Island, NY), Lenore Tawney (b. 1907, Lorain, OH- d. 2007, New York, NY), and Anne Wilson (b. 1949, Detroit, MI).

Thursday, October 23, 2014

E'wao Kagoshima at Algus Greenspon

by Drew Martin
The Algus Greenspon gallery write-up for their current show of E’wao Kagoshima’s drawings, paintings, collages, and dioramas starts with….”Slowly, a rich and inclusive picture of Post-War Japanese art is emerging in New York.” This is followed by a list of shows that they say “have contributed important cultural and geographical context.”

I have a similar/parallel feeling, but this new clarity is frankly more a matter of my dropping a number of stereotypes that I had constructed based mainly on an image projected by Japan itself, and that is one of obedience, diligence, efficiency, modernity, and ingenuity.

These are all positive traits but they do not leave much room for reflection or begin to scratch the surface of what modern Japanese art is about. So when American media picks up on more personal revelations, they seemed oddly kinky and bizarrely over-reactive to a strict social order and a demanding business environment.

Like all cultures there are many sides to Japan and the Japanese, expatriates included. So it is important to watch films such as Fine, Totally Fine and absorb as much art by Japanese artists as possible, especially if you find yourself quick to summarize the culture and people.

Kagoshima is an interesting example of the expatriate artist.  He was born in Japan in 1945, and moved to New York in 1976. What surprised me the most in this exhibit is his range. There are both abstract and surreal/fantasy drawings, as well as quirky, naïve-art-like dioramas, paintings and collages.

The top image here is the painting on the outside of one of his dioramas, titled In God We Vote, from 2007. Three of the other dioramas have Venus in the title, one of which includes a collage with a magazine cut-out of Paris Hilton.

The untitled middle image from 1980 is his most graphic collage. It shows three young women spying on something from the bushes, that being the nude pictured beneath them. The bottom portion of the collage is of a knee-high-stocking-wearing, otherwise naked model with a large header from the original layout that still reads as SHAVE even though it is cut in half, which highlights her smooth privies.

On top of this erotic image, Kagoshima lays a thin, white line that tracks the angle of her head and shoulders, and the positioning of her right arm, and lower legs. In doing so it removes her from pornography if I read these marks as the lines you might draw to start a live nude drawing or if I think of them as something computer generated that reads only the angles but misses the flesh.

The bottom image here is one of his rich charcoal drawings from 1978, which is free of his figures and narratives.

Other Museum of Peripheral Art posts about Japanese artists/works include:

Drawn to the Fantasies of Toshio Saeki

EAST vs. WEST: The Graffiti Paintings of Gajin Fujita

This is So Hard...And it's So Fantastic...Now I've Got Nothing

Fine, Totally Fine

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Invisible Hands at Fridman Gallery

by Drew Martin
I love small galleries that give their artwork a fair amount of space. The Fridman Gallery on 287 Spring Street in Manhattan is such a place.

I am glad I got to see the current exhibit
Invisible Hands, an installation of three videos, before it is comes down on Friday.

Curated by Omar Lopez-Chahoud, the video work of Donna Conlon and Jonathan Harker deals with social and financial power, history, and unpredictability. Conlon is from Atlanta, Georgia; Harker from Ecuador. Both now live and work in Panama.

Invisible Hands is also, more specifically, the name of the first video you see when you enter the space. Very visible hands, actually, with invisible bodies, spin, gather, and stack coins: in this case Panamanian balboa coins (for the Spanish conquistador), which are synonymous there with corruption.

I found this video to be the least interesting only because regional money loses its symbolic currency when it goes abroad and coins have a finite and modest value when you think of the more abstract transactions that happen with the big players.

That being said, when you learn that $40 million of these coins were put into circulation in Panama without retiring the U.S. dollars they were supposed to replace, then they have more weight. Nonetheless, I try to think about how they could be used in a more poignant manner. Like the way Chris Burden laid out 50,000 nickels, with a matchstick on top of each, to represent the 50,000-strong Soviet tank division in his 1979 piece The Reason for the Neutron Bomb.

What I found worked really well were the other two videos, Domino Effect, and Tropical Zincphony. Both of these are simple, but have a lot to say in their movement and the personality given to the inanimate objects that star in them: discarded colonial-era bricks and mangoes, respectively.

For Domino Effect Conlon and Harker set up a domino run with old bricks through a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Panama, which is now in jeopardy due to surrounding development.

While the video addresses a local issue, the symbolism, especially in Central America, has a greater political meaning.

It is a little bit unnerving to watch the 
bricks knock each other over because the first reaction is one you would have as a kid: it is colorful and cool. It is also a cheeky editing trick: of course this is not one continuous row. So you watch it with a kind of innocent joy, but then you realize it is symbolic, and has another meaning, which feels a bit dark; perhaps it could be about colonizing/invading. 

My first reaction to that feeling was that I do not know as much as I should about the history of Panama, and the region.

Tropical Zincphony has a similar set up but is more random and is a bit more light-hearted.

A mango falls from a tree and goes on an impossible journey over corrugated zinc roofing. Unlike the domino bricks, which have predetermined rules, the mango is more prone to chance.

For me this video is less political, more social, and much more about the journey of life. If the roofing were in good shape, i.e. ideal conditions, the path would be more predictable but the corrugated metal is dinged and dented and not perfect, like life. Additionally, the mango itself, like us, is not perfect for the journey. It is not spherical, and those distortions from the ideal rolling object, a ball, are like our own imperfections.

When I looked back at the first video,
Invisible Hands, with its stacks of coins, which seem at times to be casino chips, a theme of gambling emerges, but not in terms of a betting game, but rather more in terms of the chance that controls our destinies.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Multiple Personalities: Rob Pruitt at Gavin Brown's Enterprise

by Drew Martin
Four years ago this month I wrote about Rob Pruitt's Pattern and Degradation show at Gavin Brown's Enterprise. Today I visited his Multiple Personalities show in the same gallery, which is wrapping up in a few days.

Let me start in the back room of the three-room gallery, which is occupied by 12 dark, paint-globby cats, six of which are admiring Pruitt's scratchy automatic paintings, which look like art that cats would appreciate, or at least be able to create. There is a total of nine canvases. Nine paintings...nine lives?

Four of the cats are definitely not interested in his work but rather are looking out through a large, street-level gallery window at the real dogs, walking by, and pissing on the black plastic trash bags piled up on the sidewalk. There is another cat frozen-walking between the paintings, and the last cat is still-crawling out of the room.

In the middle room are eight, large "suicide" paintings with surfaces that fade from light to dark colors, with wide borders that fade in the opposite direction. Two little dunes of sand flank a broad pedestrian path that runs between the front and back rooms. Are they suicide paintings because they kind of reference Rothko, who slit his own wrists? Or is it because they create a mind-numbing loop if you follow the gradations back and forth?

I read the room differently. I thought Pruitt was trying to create a void, unlike but parallel to the typical nothingness of a white gallery. The fades in the painting are like the simple atmospheric perspective you see at the beach where the teal ocean deepens/darkens as it nears the horizon, and the blue sky washes out as it sinks into the water.

This effect, in conjunction with the sand, creates a mindless, beach-like environment in which you do not expect much more from what Pruitt typically serves up: not-deep art that focuses on quick images. If this is the intent, that is pretty smart - separating the viewer from a busy city that raises everyone's expectations as well as critical review.

The front room is the most intense. It is filled with 12 4'x8' sheets of plywood/upturned table tops, and seven uncozy "love seats," five of which are bland Ikea-like pieces of furniture, and the remaining two are plywood renditions of the same style. The love is actually the sex of the constant pornographic doodles that cover these little sofas as well as the plywood boards.

If you calculate all this surface space, it works out to more than 600 square feet of doodle space. Even the most graphic images fade into the colorful, playful theme, which is actually really engaging.

One of my favorite details, which I only noticed on my way out, is the cute tubesock design painted on the legs of one couch, which matches the socks of an otherwise naked women occupied by multiple sexual acts.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

An Experiment in the Cinematic Communication of Visible Events Between The Wars and the Smell of Fresh Warpaint

by Drew Martin
Earlier today I watched the eighth best film ever made and the best documentary of all time according to recent Sight and Sound polls. The movie, Man With a Movie Camera, is 
an experimental 1929 silent documentary film, by Dziga Vertov (named in the opening credits as the "author and supervisor" of this "experiment"), and was brilliantly edited by his wife Elizaveta Svilova. The footage and editing blew me away. I have never seen anything quite like it. Even though the day in a life theme has been overplayed for decades, this seminal cinematic journal is amazingly modern.

The film presents everyday life in Kiev, Kharkov, Moscow and Odessa. We see coal miners, drunks, athletes, dancers, factory workers, typists, sunbathers, horses, cars, trams, trains, ships...it is an endless montage. There is a funeral procession paired with a live birth, and a couple applying for a wedding registration followed by a couple getting a divorce. The film breathes life, even when you consider that almost everyone in it is now dead. The feeling of the film, beyond any kind of Marxist agenda, is that it is good to be alive. 

I grew up thinking that the 60s and 70s had nothing on the Roaring 20s and this film really confirms that for me. It was a positive time between two horrific world wars. Almost all the women have short hair with a modern style, and they are really active and sporty. Their smiles from nearly a century past still make you glow. The downy hair on the back of a young woman, who wakes up and puts on her bra, makes you realize this film is not only a window to the past but a macroscopic lens on the details of life at that time.

Solid machines with spinning gears drinking oil are modern symbols of the day. And even though many of these visuals are of obsolete things and bygone ways, you still get a sense of how futuristic this time seemed. This includes the obvious excitement around the presence of the camera for this ambitious project, which seems in that era even more fascinating than all of our selfie gadgets and apps today.

I love this film, and feel like it has given me a closer look at humanity than anything ever made before or after it. I think it will always feel modern and fresh despite its age because of Vertov's vision and Svilova's genius editing. In fact, this film can only get more precious as it gets older because its energy frees it from a time and place.

The movie starts with the following manifesto text...

This film presents an experiment in the cinematic communication of visible events without the aid of intertitles, without the aid of a scenario, without the aid of theatre (a film without actors, without sets, etc.). This experimental work aims at creating a truly international absolute language of cinema based on its total separation from the language of theatre and literature.

The common critique of media is that by using it to record life and by observing life through it we are missing the real thing. But this film supports media in the grandest way. The truth is that life is so fleeting and free flowing that media gives us the chance to capture some of its magic.

I was thinking about this the other day from a totally different place. A few years ago I saw a video by the band Warpaint and instantly fell in love with their music/them. They recently came through New York and were playing in a very small venue so I got a ticket to see them this past Tuesday night. The fact is I knew I would never be able to get as close to the band as you see them in the crystal clear videos and I knew the sound would be worse than a clean studio recording but there was that urge to just be in the same room with them and to cut through the layers of media separation. And then once that is accomplished there is a funny desire to record the moment even though it feels awkward doing so and you know the recording will be nothing like the feeling of the live performance.

Click below to see
 a One Minute Warpaint recording I made.

Click here to watch Man With a Movie Camera in its entirety with the Michael Nyman soundtrack, which I recommend.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Balancing Act: Alexander Calder and the Cosmos

by Drew Martin
Yesterday's selenelion, that's the total lunar eclipse opposite a sunrise, got me thinking about how the sun and moon have been represented in art throughout the ages. I first think of Vincent Van Gogh's The Starry Night and The Red Vineyard, or even his Vase with 12 Sunflowers, which is really a composition of flowers as suns. I also think about Henri Rousseau's jungle scene paintings with their perfect, distant full moons.

I think the artist who was most influenced by the relationship between the sun and moon was Alexander Calder. As the story goes, he awoke on the deck of a ship near the equator in open water with a clear view of panoramic horizon. On the eastern horizon was a rising sun, and on the western horizon was a setting full moon. Seeing those two, perfect circles, opposed to each other, with him in between them sparked an interest in their balance. A connection was made at that moment that merged his thorough artistic upbringing, and formal engineering education, which sparked a kind of revolution in sculpture. Until then, including the stonework of his father and grandfather, sculpture was massive and monumental. Calder forever changed that when he created his/the first mobile, which seemed childishly playful and whimsical.

One of my favorite stories of Calder was when he had a show, which included a kinetic, motor-driven system of sliding balls on twisted wire that referenced planetary movement. Albert Einstein showed up, was transfixed by the work, and stood staring at it through its full 45-ish minute cycle.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Finger Tutting and King Tutankhamun

by Drew Martin
Fingers have always been crucial to 
creating art and communication: from signing a language to pecking Morse code. More often than not, fingers are busy holding tools: pens and pencils, paintbrushes and stone chisels. Music has perhaps celebrated the dexterity and possibilities of fingers more than any other art form or manner of communication. The "digital" demands of the harpsichord preceded the qwerty keyboard of typewriters by hundreds of years.

While finger movements have been essential to dance from the beginning of time, the art form of finger tutting has taken it to a whole new level. It is really a microcosm/subset of the breakdancing scene that started in the late 1970s.

Breakdancing itself is a derivative of tutting, which references King 
Tutankhamun, more popularly referred to as King Tut. In the 1970s funk dancers began to mimick the stiff, angular positions locked into the stylized paintings and sculptures from ancient Egypt.

King Tut was the pharaoh of the 18th dynasty (1332 BC – 1323 BC) but his tomb was not discovered until 1922, which renewed public interest in ancient Egypt.

The relics of his tomb hit the road with The Treasures of Tutankhamun tour from 1972 to 1979. The Metropolitan Museum of Art organized the exhibition for its display in the United States, which ran from 1976 through 1979. More than eight million people attended.

So while breakdancing started on the streets of New York, the influence came from the revival of ancient Egypt art that hit New York like a sand storm.

And just as unlikely as this active street dance originating in the calm galleries of New York's greatest museum, Taylor Swift recently mainstreamed finger tutting in her Shake It Off video, in which she comically inserts herself into various dance style groups. She finger tuts side by side one of the greatest, PNUT.

I first watched her video in response to reading a harsh critique I read by a woman who identified herself, in a popular magazine, as African American. She slammed Swift for twerking with black women. I was expecting something like Lily Allen's Hard Out There twerking video but it was much more benign, playful, and self deprecating. She tries to pull off several styles and they all end with a kind of klutzy attempt. She half-asses her way through ballet, breakdancing, modern dance, ribbon dancing, and cheerleading, and pokes a little fun at Miley Cyrus and Lady Gaga. The tone is what you see in the animated gif here: someone (in this case PNUT) doing something really well, and Swift fumbling, and it works...it's cute.

I know that trying out different styles in music videos has been done before but what immediately came to mind was KT Tunstall's Hold On music video. I rewatched it to see how she handled a style that might raise an eyebrow and my jaw dropped. There are a couple seconds of her standing with three almost-naked African warriors doing vertical leaps.

Popularizing cultural arts is always an issue but I am not sure if people should take offense to acts like The Bangels Walk Like an Egyptian song/music video or Steve Martin's King Tut performance on Saturday Night Live.

Watch the video at the bottom of this post to see Mark Benson's seminal tutting moves. 

Watch the video below to see "
The Best Finger Dancers in the world, all in one video! Dancers: CTUT. JAYFUNK, NEMESIS, PNUT, STROBE, ERA"

Sunday, September 28, 2014

On-Demanding People: From 3D-Printing Revolution to 4D-Printing Evolution

by Drew Martin
Last winter my youngest kid, then six years old, asked for a 3D printer as a holiday gift. His intention was to make figurines to add to his collection of store-bought Angry Birds paraphernalia. He was not confronted by business demands, and he did not need a TED Talk to seed a vision, it simply made sense to him: why get a box of toys when you can get something that will make boxes of toys? I have not bought him one...yet. Maybe a new term for 
demanding millennial kids should be on-demanding kids.

I like the phrase technological advance because it signifies not only a departure from the current state but also movement towards something else that is predetermined. The 3D printer has already been played out in science fiction, including the replicator in Star Trek, and even in mythologies and old stories such as the gold-egg-laying goose in Jack and the Beanstalk. The "revolution" of 3D printing, a technology that has been around and in use for decades, is that it is coming to your home.

The parallel to personal computers is uncanny. My millennial teenage kids are in the same position with 3D printing as I was at their age with computers. I had early access in the 1970s to the first computers through my father's nuclear lab, and yet at that time there was the question of why you would ever need or even want one in your home. Once the size and price dropped, it just happened. And like the early trinkets of 3D printing, the first real instance of computers in homes was through video games. Playfulness aside, they also introduced intense graphic user interfaces at least a decade before Apple caught on to it for their Macs.

In ten years' time, everyone who has a reason for owning a computer now, will own a 3D printer and companies such as Home Depot need to get on board and have as much of their inventory scanned/modeled as possible, otherwise they will go the way of Borders Books, Blockbuster Video, and Tower Records. Why would I jump in a car and drive ten miles to pick up some plastic hooks or a screwdriver when I can just print them out?

I watched an interesting documentary yesterday on Netflix, called Print the Legend, about the two forces behind desktop 3D printing: Makerbot (pictured top) and Form Labs (pictured second from top), and the guys that are running these companies, Bre Pettis and Maxim Lobovsky, respectively.

Makerbot, which uses extrusion-based technology, is the more popular of the two and has a larger market share, but Form Labs uses a more-advanced system, laser-centering stereolithography, and spits out a better product. Extrusion works by squeezing heated plastic through a nozzle to build models in layers, whereas stereolithography uses a laser to polymerize and harden a liquid resin. 
You can see the difference in quality and prices of the systems as shown in the comparison of rooks (pictured middle) made by these desktop printers, along with the one made on a 3D Systems industrial printer. Better is about quality of the material used and "resolution," which is the quality of the end piece. We are all familiar with image quality differences in the world of digital images, so one could say that the Makerbot end product is lower resolution and has a rough, almost pixelated look, compared to Form Labs.

In addition to Pettis and Lobovsky, another main character in this story is Cody Wilson, a free-market anarchist, and guns-right activist, partially shown here (pictured second from bottom) holding the first 3D-printed gun, The Liberator, made with a Makerbot. Pettis refuses to address the topic of guns printed with his machines. After Cody's video about The Liberator went viral, Pettis splashed around a feel-good story about Robohand, a prosthetic (pictured bottom) made with the Makerbot, for kids born without fingers. In the end, The Liberator was more of a sensation with 3,700,000 views compared to 484,000 views for Robohand. If Wilson is a thorn in the industry's side, it is in the right place. During the divided national argument about acquiring guns, he simply made one. He slyly disrupted a disruptive technology.

In the end, this documentary is really a story about the personalities of Pettis, Lobovsky, and Wilson. Pettis is pitched as the next Steve Jobs, and there is much time devoted to him turning his back on his friends and cofounders in order to build a bigger company. There is also a change of character the other way around. Avi Reichental, CEO of 3D Systems, the big player for the stereolithography process, at first tries to crush Lobovsky's Form Labs with a lawsuit for copyright infringement but then comes around and decides to be more open with his company. One of the strongest human voices in all of this is Nadia Cheng, Lobovsky's girlfriend, who questions the emotional tools of her boyfriend and other entrepreneurs out to "change the world."

I think the technology will be especially interesting when the units become mobile. I am thinking about how spiders operate their three pairs of spinners, and can emit different substances, such as a sticky or a non sticky thread. Picture automated spiderbots spinning latticed footbridges in remote places, or safety netting on construction sites. A milestone in 3D printing will be when the system can recycle its own products as well as other plastic objects.

In all honesty, I am already kind of bored of 3D printing. More fascinating is 4D printing, which is about programming physical materials to build themselves. This would have infinite applications from nano and micro needs to the built environment with construction, infrastructure, and manufacturing. S
elf assembly is a process by which disordered parts build an ordered structure through only local interaction. Materials can be programmed to assume a desired geometry once they are activated by energy sources such as heat, movement, pneumatics, gravity, and/or magnetics.

Click here to watch Skylar Tibbits TED Talk, the Emergence of "4D Printing."

Click here to watch the trailer for Print a Legend