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, 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'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

Friday, September 26, 2014

You Bet Your Life on It: The Existential Journey of Buying Life Insurance

by Drew Martin
If there is value in art for creating a space to explore one’s mortality and contemplate life, and we find this across the disciplines of dance, music, literature, and theatre, then we can say that “the arts” serve a higher purpose than baser forms of entertainment, fashion, design, and other pop distractions. Of course the arts experience can never measure up to, or prepare one for, the real life events of birth, sickness, and death. If not through the arts, are there other experiences that can bring us nearer to these extremes? 

Sports, for example, can bring on hunger, pain, and exhaustion, but what about less physical actions, and something that might seem quite boring and mundane?

I recently bought life insurance independent of what is provided for me at my place of employment and it was actually a fascinating existential ordeal. What might look like a typical sales transaction with an eager salesman and a cautious potential customer is much deeper, and a little sinister because you are basically entering a you-bet-your-life-on-it-pact with a devil/angel.

A life insurance company (and here I am only talking about what is sold as “term” insurance) is betting that you will live to a certain age.  I found this fact quite comforting because even though this is all about money, it is nice to know that an organization wants me to stay alive, as opposed to a funeral home which would profit from my death. And the only way to get a phenomenal return on your investment is to die, sooner than later. Of course this is an absurd bargain because we are all worth more alive than dead.

Where is the soul in all of this? If you believe in an afterlife, whether that is a heavenly place or reincarnation, then the transaction seems even more lucrative. I think what is most interesting is that we spend most of our time on petty things, and in superficial conversations so when we are reminded of our own mortality it is too depressing and profound to contemplate. It scares us so much, that we quickly loop back into the busy distractions of our lives. But having a petty tag to your life, such as a lump of cash that a beneficiary would profit from, actually makes the thought more bearable. Not because we find comfort in a trade-in value for our corpse but because it appeals to our let’s-make-a-deal consumer mind, and a feeling of justice and fairness people actually get when they are financially compensated for an offense or loss.

The other interesting part of the deal is that there is an algorithm behind all of this. The life insurance companies need one that works in order to be profitable. A figure told to me was that only 1.5% of the policies are actually paid out because the majority of the people that buy the policy live past their term. This means that if you are healthy enough to pass muster with a company to qualify for a policy, you basically have a 98.5% chance of living for the next 20 years. That is a much higher figure than I would put on myself so not only do I have peace of mind that my wife and children would be financially stable after my death, but I also am comforted by knowing that the probability of spending another twenty years with my wife and seeing my kids graduate from colleges and marry and have their own children is, at least on paper, looking good.

One interesting social aspect of what I have seen is that most life insurance agents and policy holders are men, who are still in the majority as the head of household breadwinners. The transaction is one of duty and of taking care of one’s family. However, the people who should really be driving this are women who are more often than not the beneficiaries.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Pulling My Lego

by Drew Martin
I watched a short (20 minute) British documentary today about the turnaround success of Lego, and how it serves as a model/case study for reviving a troubled business. A decade ago it was in bad shape but more recently Lego has been experiencing double-digit growth. In 2013 its profits rose 24% and the company produced 55 billion elements, which breaks down to 105,000 pieces per minute. It is estimated that more than 600 billion pieces have been made since it the company's founding in 1932. There are at least 80 pieces of Lego for every human being on the planet. With more than 500 million tiny tires produced each year, it is also considered one of the largest tire makers.

Lego is a merging of the Danish words Leg and godt, which mean "play well."  
While the trademark element is the basic building block (originally referred to as automatic binding bricks) some of the sets require detailed instructions and enduring patience. The most complex packaged set is the Taj Mahal with 5,922 pieces. Adult enthusiasts for the toy have built much more elaborate creations, which incorporate computers and other hardware. Many of them belong to AFOL (Adult Fans of Lego) and participate in the Lego Mindstorms. But no matter how complex the sets or how sophisticated the projects, the real power of the possibility is in the block itself.

A young employee in the documentary explains that with two 2x4 pegged blocks, it is possible to position them in 24 different ways. With three blocks, there are 1,060 possibilities, and with six blocks there are 915,103,765 ways to combine them. The CEO says that they have a digital-like aspect (0 and 1 combinations) so they are endlessly creative, yet extremely logical.

I grew up with the old-school sets of Legos, in which the most complicated pieces might be hinged shutters or doors. The number of unique pieces being manufactured was once upward of 13,000 units, but the CEO insisted they cut that back to 7,000 in order to help revive the core business.

In my house thousands of Lego pieces sit in big bins, which resemble colorful trash heaps. My first two kids are too old to play with them and my youngest boy does not have a particular interest in them so they remain as detritus of their childhood. I have been trying to make sense of them as basic art materials.

Pictured top, is a Lego mural I have slowly built (whenever I find a stash or piece) for the past year. After a recent doubling in size, it is more than six feet wide. From the beginning, it was important for me to capture the creative magic of my childhood when the pieces were limited so I established some basic rules. For this mural I only used the very thin, solid pieces, without curved edges. Angled edges are included but only if they do not cut back and create a negative space. In terms of the process, I established that there could only be two layers throughout the entire piece, which means there are no stacking or layering of three or more pieces, which keeps the work very flat.

To sift through bins of Lego pieces in order to find the pieces for this mural is time consuming so the last time I did it, I started to also pull out several other types and sorted them accordingly so I could use them for additional projects. Pictured bottom, is another piece I did with only the skinniest pieces of Lego. They are standard height but are only one peg wide. Then I capped the top pieces with the smooth side Legos. My two younger sons joined me when they saw me working on it. This piece wraps around a support column in the center of our house. It is loose (and strong) enough to move up and down the column.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

NOW Wow: Wonder Woman Revisted

by Drew Martin
Jill Lepore's article The Last Amazon: Wonder Woman Returns in the September 22, 2014 issue of The New Yorker brought back fond, boyhood memories, and helped explain a thing or two about my childhood crush-hero.

I loved Wonder Woman when I was a kid: I loved her look, her power, and her golden lasso of truth. Lynda Carter was a beautiful goddess to me. I was even hooked on the animated version on television. I especially liked how Wonder Woman's invisible plane was minimally represented with simple white lines, similar to the treatment used to show (her guy friend) Aquaman's sonar call to his marine friends.

I tuned out of the whole thing as I matured but I did have a reaction when I brought my teen daughter to Comic Con in New York a couple years ago and saw totally out-of-shape and junk-food-feed women donning the costume. Likewise, as Lepore points out the shortcomings of Gal Gadot for the new movie role, I had a similar unsettled feeling about not doing justice to the character and Carter's stellar embodiment of my adolescent icon.

Lepore's article digs deep (for nine, full pages) into the history of Wonder Woman and her creator, Dr. William Moulton Marston, a psychologist with a Ph.D. from Harvard, who breathed life into her in 1941 so as to bolster self-confidence in girls.

Marsten's dissertation on the detection of deception based on the changes in blood pressure earned him credit as the inventor of the lie detector test. This explains Wonder Woman's golden lasso, with which she captures people who cannot lie once they are ensnared.

Wonder Woman's big, bullet-blocking bracelets were a nod (or more like a wink) to one of Marsten's students who wore two long, silver bracelets: one from Africa and one from Mexico. This student became part of a threesome love affair and long-term living arrangement manned by Marston.

Wonder Woman was embraced by the Equal Rights movement, and as Lepore mentions on more than one occasion in her article, Ms. magazine featured her on the cover of their first regular issue, in 1972.

My mother, who was very active in the feminist movement and NOW (National Organization for Women) in the 1970s, took this picture of me (bottom image) in 1972 with that very issue!

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Artist and the Mathematician: A Revolution of Human Thought

by Drew Martin
A couple years ago I bought a book titled The Artist and the Mathematician: The Story of Nicolas Bourbaki, the Genius Mathematician Who Never Existed. I was hoping it would be something like The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary but it did not have the same kind of flow or kick-start so I put it down and spurned it every time I saw it on the book shelf.

For some reason I picked it up a couple weeks ago and discovered what a brilliant book it is. The Artist and the Mathematician is about a French mathematics group that..."embarked on the ambitious project of setting the mathematics curriculum for calculus and mathematical analysis offered in all universities in France." They were the best mathematicians in their country whose collective genius changed the course of mathematics around the world.

They published as "Nicolas Bourbaki," a character they not only invented but also built a life around including a baptism, baptismal certificate, godparents, and even invitations to his "daughter's" wedding. There was one member of the collective who most captured the essence of Bourbaki, Alexandre Grothendieck - a brilliant man who survived a horrific childhood during the Holocaust, changed modern mathematics, and then abandoned his academic post, friends, and family to return to the solitude that he credited for the success of his deep understanding of mathematics.

The Bourbaki group enjoyed a special place in society:

é life in Paris would, therefore be dominated not only by the philosophers and the writers and artists, but also by the mathematicians. And perhaps for the first time in modern history, mathematics would play a key role in the general culture - in a way that it did only in the very distant past of ancient Greece. 

Since Sartre and his allies were decidedly non-mathematical in their approach to life, they would inevitably be left behind. Their philosophical theory of existentialism would end its reign as the strictly axiomatic, rigorous, and system-oriented theory called structuralism swept France and the rest of the Western world. The mathematicians would play a key role in the new milieu not only as proponents of a new and widely-used approach to life, but also as 'connectors' among practitioners in different fields: the exact sciences, the social sciences, art, literature, psychology, economics, and philosophy. This would launch a new age for mathematics, one in which the role of the discipline in our culture could not be matched by any other... fact, the ideas developed by these mathematicians sitting in Parisian caf
és would prove to be of crucial importance for society as a whole. The ideas of these mathematicians would constitute nothing less than a revolution in human thought - one whose effect would be felt far and wide.

The art world in this period was driven by Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and Marcel Duchamp who absorbed this mathematical and scientific awakening into their work.

Einstein's dramatic discovery in 1905 dealt a fatal blow to our view of the universe. His theory (of relativity) added a fourth dimension to our world: the dimension of time. It was now time for our new view of nature to enter into art. The mathematician Maurice Princet explained Einstein's theory to artists, and they began to mimic these discoveries in physics in their own work.

While Princet did not create cubism, his explanations did influence the new art form. Picasso, Braque, Duchamp, Metzinger, Gris, and others created the new art form by destroying the old perspective and realism and creating the new way of painting. But the fourth dimension itself was now to enter as well. Artists tried both to paint in a way that seemed to reflect a new dimension and to create art in which time itself was the variable. Time was the added dimension. Marcel Duchamp, in particular, explored paintings in which subjects were depicted at different point in time. He even experimented with paintings in which time was accelerating or slowing down. Duchamp's Portrait de joueurs d'echecs, 1911...serves as a good illustration of these ideas...

...He painted a series of studies and canvases of checkers and chess players...The cubist painting (Portrait de joueurs d'echecs) shows his two brothers, Villon on the right and Duchamp-Villon on the left, engrossed in the game. The two figures are fused in the center, creating an illusion from a single point of view, thus doing away with the old spatial perspective. The figures reappear, deformed and at changing angles, higher on the canvass, reflecting the effects as a fourth dimension. The two players, however, are unaware of the fourth dimension and are locked in a static subspace of the dynamic universe around them.

Structuralism is defined by the author, Amir Aczel, as...

...a method of intellectual inquiry that provides a framework for organizing and understanding areas of human study concerned with the production and perception of meaning.

Structuralism is interdisciplinary, and multidisciplinary.

Although this system originated with mathematicians as well as linguists, the French anthropologist Lévi-Strauss is credited as being the father of structuralism because he released it from its breeding grounds to other fields where it flourished.

The fundamental assumption of structuralism is that all of human behavior arises from an innate structuring capability. This structuring ability latent in the human brain, gives rise to language. But the same structures hidden inside the brain also lead to myths, creativity, and various social patterns...

Structuralism deals with the relationships between parts and the whole. Totality takes logical priority over individual parts, and the relationships are more important than the entities they connect. The hidden structure is thus much more important than whit is obvious or apparent in any given situation. It is the symbolism that matters, rather than the entities symbolized. Because of the philosophical components of structure, we find the ideas of structure in areas far beyond the sciences...

Structuralism was a deep method that stripped away all the unnecessary elements of a system.

The linguistic origins of structuralism started with Roman Jakobson, who helped found the Moscow Circle of linguistics in 1915, the Saint Petersburg Circle of linguistics in 1917, and then the Circle of Prague.

In the Theses of 1929 the Prague linguists wrote:

In its social role, one must distinguish language following the existing relationship between it and the extra-linguistic reality. Language has a function in communication, that is, it is aimed at the signified: or it has a poetic function, that is, it is aimed at the symbolism itself.

A literary society founded in 1960 was also modeled after Bourbaki. They were called Oulipo (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle - Workshop of potential literature). 
One of the most prominent members was the Italian writer Italo Calvino. 

Oulipo translated geometrical ideas into linguistic ones:

Point = Word, Line = Sentence, Place = Paragraph

Oulipo attempted to deconstruct literature and rebuild it in a new way, thus bringing the new structuralism from mathematics, anthropology, and art into the foundation of a new literature.

They created systems for producing poetry such as the M+/-n Method, and from that the S+7 Method, which brings to mind the game of juxtapositions by the surrealists that we refer to as Exquisite Corpse. Or perhaps it is even more akin to the word substitution game marketed as Mad Libs.

S+7 Method:

  • choose a text
  • select a dictionary (bilingual was typically used)
  • replace every noun with the seventh noun appearing after it in the dictionary
So a passage such as...

I saw a rabbit in the garden,
eating my cabbage, tomatoes, and carrots.
I tried to throw a stone at it,

but it bolted when it noticed my raised arm.


I saw a radio in the garrison,
eating my cacophony, tongue, and cartwheels.
I tried to throw a stove at it,

but it bolted when it noticed my raised aroma.

Having done this on the spot with the student's dictionary next to me, the process is a kind of random/false creativity.

The way the brain processes information, according to Lé
vi-Strauss, is by using symbolism. The symbolism is what structural analysis  is designed to uncover. Structure is thus a code, consisting of concise symbols. The symbolism inherent in brain function follows mathematical rules that are tantamount to the ideas developed by Bourbaki: the notions of closeness, transformation, groupings, and other of the "mother structures" studied by the group.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Sleeping Senses

by Drew Martin
Lately I have been having a kind of surge in lucid dreams, which I should probably keep to myself, but the increase in detail is worth noting.

I have always had vivid and complex dreams but what I experienced last night was one of the most bizarre dreams I have had in recent times. In it I was supposedly on some kind of drug but the fascinating effects of the drug were my dream sensibilities: unreal tactile feeling and movement, and my muddled non-awake comprehension of things. The sobriety I was yearning was really awakened consciousness.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Time Zero: The Last Year of Polaroid Film

by Drew Martin
In Sleeper (1973), Woody Allen plays Miles Monroe, a jazz musician and owner of the 'Happy Carrot' Health-Food store who was cryopreserved in 1973, and revived 200 years later. When Allen’s character realizes the duration of his stasis he says, “You know, I bought Polaroid at seven, it’s probably up millions by now.”

At the time Sleeper came out Polaroid was cutting edge, the kind of company that Apple grew up wanting to be, but unlike Apple, Polaroid was unique in that they had unchallenged rule over their product - consumer cameras that shot instant film.

The company was founded in 1937 and had their first consumer camera on the market in 1947.  In 1972 the company introduced the folding, single lens Polaroid SX-70, which changed the history of photography. By 2001 the Polaroid Corporation filed for bankruptcy. It stopped making cameras in 2007 and stopped selling film after 2009 to the shock of die-hard Polaroid photographers. The decline had less to do with losing out to the digital age and more to do with mismanagement and lack of enthusiasm for their own product .

Since 2010, however, a group called The Impossible Project kick-started a defunct Polaroid production plant in Enschede, Holland, and have made instant film available to its niche market.

This morning I watched Time Zero: The Last Year of Polaroid Film, a 95-minute documentary that captures this free-fall moment for Polaroid photographers through many personal interviews.

What I did not know was how devoted the employees were to the founder and leader, Edwin Land, who considered himself first and foremost an artist. One of his first employees explained that she went to work for Polaroid thinking of it as a technology company and found herself dealing more with the art and the artist.

One of Land’s achievements with the SX-70 was its integral film, which meant everything was contained in the photograph: no peel away, no chemical waste, no detritus. Land did not want the people using his cameras to litter the land. His love for the photographic arts and the environment is evident with one of his first hired consultants, Ansel Adams. Land believed that everyone had a kernel of creativity and his cameras were tools to help them explore their inner artist.

Most of the film speaks about Polaroid as one would expect from an artistic point of view: the magical production of a physical product, the instant artifact and instant memory, and the social experience of taking pictures. One of the surprises was a clip by Paul Giambarba, a former art director at Polaroid, who was most known for the package design. He says what he did was big deal at the time because it gave the consumer the first chance to pronounce the company's name. A lot of people mispronounced it with attempts like poylaroad. Giambarba said this had a lot to do with the typeface of the original packaging that used Memphis, which made little distinction between the lowercase a and o (left logo, top). He improved the clarity of the name by setting up POLAROID in all caps New Gothic within a black end panel (left logo, bottom).

Click here to watch the trailer for Time Zero: The Last Year of Polaroid Film.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Second Millennium Stone Age: Detailed Perfection and Pure Minimalism

by Drew Martin
Stone, in all its varieties, is known for its solidity and durability, but it also elicits a feeling of physical and emotional coldness, which is ironic considering some of the most moving and fleshiest artworks, especially sculptures by artists such as Michelangelo and Antonio Canova, were carved in marble. It also has a reputation for being archaic or even primitive, and yet for centuries it served as the medium to showcase advances in technical skills around the world.

On a trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art yesterday, my daughter and I stumbled into the mesmerizing Islamic Art Galleries, and I was able to revisit one of my favorite pieces in the museum, which I had not seen for a long time. It is a red sandstone jali (screen) that was carved in the second half of the 16th century. It is airy and see-through, and it makes you rethink the function and possibilities of stone. What I like about this piece is that the geometric field of stars, which is so common in Islamic art, is most often purely decorative when used in tiled designs and filigreed plaster walls and arches, but here it has a structural function as it pushes the limit of its negative space while maintaining enough of its supportive strength. Although its design is a mathematically-inspired aesthetic solution within the centuries-old imposed boundaries of Islamic visual arts, there is something so modern in its look and feel that it might as well be a recent product of a 3-D printer.

Another stonework that caught my eye yesterday was a sphere of volcanic rock (andesite) from the Diquís culture, created sometime while these native Costa Ricans flourished between 700-1530 AD. I must have seen the sphere before but never really paid much attention to it, partly because it is stuck in a corner of Gallery 357 - for Pre-Columbian art, which is a room loaded with pure gold ornaments. This sphere and hundreds (perhaps thousands) of others made by the Diquís are amazing technological accomplishments. The sphere in the Met is 26 inches in diameter and weighs 850 lbs. but they can range from a few centimeters to more than six feet in diameter, and weigh up to 15 tons. Not much is known about how they were created or their purpose but they persist as beautifully minimal sculptures to behold and contemplate.