Saturday, July 19, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Taylor quote source

Rich Pellegrino quote source

Thursday, July 17, 2014

I Saw Her Across A Crowded Room

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

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

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

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

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

Ode to Rodney Mullen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Found Memories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click here to watch a trailer for Found Memories.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Conceptual Art is a Two-Way Street

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 6, 2014

O Bruegel, Where Art Thou?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click here to watch a trailer for Museum Hours.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Ethiopia: My Hunger Games

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Listen/watch: We Are The World

Friday, June 20, 2014

A Dream Installation

by Drew Martin
Last week I had a dream that I was in a museum with a group of people. The most interesting space was one large, dimly-lit, earth-toned room, which had a mesmerizing sculptural installation.

The work was a large artificial field with waist-high swaying synthetic stalks. You could tug on the perimeter to expand it from one side of the room, and you could also walk into it to discover hidden things: a naked lover, lost toys, forgotten things.

It was a dream within a dream but was presented as a work of art. And while this work does not actually exist, it is one of my favorite art works because of the physical interaction that revealed desires and longings. It had the presence of an Anne Hamilton exhibit with the thinking of a late-Duchamp, or perhaps even Karl Schwitters.

Perhaps it is just a dream, or maybe something new - Field of Dreams, a dream installation by Drew Martin, 2014.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Happy Meal at the Strip Mall

by Drew Martin
Last night I had a dream that I was going to look at an academy for my son, who is going to high school next year. I drove into some remote part of northern New Jersey, and parked my car in a big, almost empty lot next to a cheap, one-story stand-alone building with wrap-around windows, which had the poor architectural sensibility of a stripmall. I walked around the structure to try to find the academy and noticed an oversize jacuzzi inside, which was full of naked couples joyfully jumping up and down. I stopped to look and noticed that the pairings were odd. For every older out-of-shape person was a younger fit counterpart, not unlike a fitness trainer. I went inside and sat down next to the pool of water and watched everyone having a good time, albeit somewhat scripted. When the others noticed that I was not part of the group, I got up and left. Right on my heels was a slinky Korean lady named Jenny. She was trying to be affectionate and intimate. I found her very attractive but was confused by whether or not she was sincere or if this was part of this organization's recruitment. I peeled away and walked along the road trimmed with uninspired woods accented with large glacial rocks.

I walked by a little boarded-up town. There was an aircraft museum with a jet outside, which I thought my son might like, but it was also closed. I saw a frumpy little woman and I inquired about the name of the town. She replied, "A town that has been abandoned." I looked around at a few signs and surmised that this place was called Rybnik, which means fishpond in several Slavic languages, whose countries also used this word for names of towns. I spent the night in a hotel and then at dusk of the following day I returned to the building to see what might be happening. First, I walked by a nearby stripmall. I saw Jenny in front of me, and she stepped into a nail salon and greeted her friends and then left to go to work at the building. She was wearing a long, flowery skirt and a conservative jacket. When she saw me she got embarrassed and ran inside.  I walked over to the building and heard a band of misfits playing music outside a side entrance. The musicians and other locals looked as if they had never left the area. They were mutated and rough around the edges. They only played for a few minutes, like it was the introduction to a late-night TV show, and then they all stopped and looked in the windows.

It was obvious that this was a nightly ritual, and their main source of entertainment. Inside, the jacuzzi pool was still; empty of naked revelers. This evening the space was filled with a wrap-around, informal dinner table full of guests/tourists who looked like they had been bused in from the Midwest. Peppered around them were the paid, soon-to-be-naked employees, but the conversation was being directed by a few old, heavy set men with robust voices, who were kick-starting conversations about football and engaging the tourists. 
It was obvious from the mumblings of the locals that all the prompts were scripted, and that this was just the start of an evening of events that would conclude with the jacuzzi romp.

It was a peculiar dream because it was about a modern culture that needs to have a scripted dinner party and evening events to have a good time. The jacuzzi part of the dream came from something I recently saw - 
Slavoj Žižek's look at the Santa Barbara wine festival romp scene in the movie Seconds with Rock Hudson, in his psychoanalytical look at films - The Pervert's Guide to Ideology.

Click here to see the scene from Seconds.

Friday, May 30, 2014

The A-Z of I.V. and "My" ΑΦ Sorority at UCSB

by Drew Martin
When the girl across the hall found out I was inexperienced with women, she grabbed a blanket from her bed, took me by the hand, and led me down to the beach at night.

That was 1987, I had just turned 18 years old and it was my first week of college at the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB), where I moved after growing up as an awkward kid in northern New Jersey. I lived in an off-campus, coed dorm in Isla Vista, the beachside bungalow college town where 22-year-old Elliot Rodger killed six students last week. The murders were his revenge against young women for not sleeping with him, and to punish the young men who enjoyed sexual relations he said he was denied.

I will not read his 140ish-page manifesto, but I did watch all of his nearly seven-minute-long final video. The first cue that something is off is that he is a 22 year old sitting in a fancy, new BMW. That is undeserved privilege, and the first impression is that he is a spoiled kid who feels entitled to such material things, which in his mind included women. It is also in this case a shell from the breezy palm trees and California sunlight you see in the shot. 

My grandmother used to say "Don't be ugly." Attractiveness is about how you behave. Rodger was a good-looking kid, but (from what you see in the video) he was repulsive with his narcissism. That being said I do not know what he was like in casual conversation, and I have no idea what he personally went through, and how he felt inside. Boys can be jerks, girls can be cruel, and life can feel empty. But of all places...

Isla Vista, more commonly referred to as I.V., is a party town, but it is not exclusive because most of the action is in the public sphere: on the streets and beach. It is a casual place with a good vibe. It is, in fact, one of my favorite places on Earth. The weather is as good as it gets, and the bluffs, beach and Pacific Ocean are always there waiting for you to unwind and let go of whatever might be troubling you. And if you want to get away from a chilly fog or the student life, the sunny San Ynez mountains are a few minutes away by car, and a doable bike ride. To add to the charm (and the reason why the college town is called Isla Vista), the Channel Islands can be seen from the edge of town. It is a place in which you feel good just by standing still.

What I liked most about the town when I lived there for four years was how open it was and how everyone intermingled. It seemed like everyone was in a band and part of the creative process. On the weekends you could walk around and hear and see live music being played in joints, out of garages, and on patches of lawns. There were homeless dudes, hippies, punks, organic farmers, migrant workers, surfers, skaters, and artists. And there were a lot of smart people. Despite the party town image, the real reason most of the residents are there is for school. 

UCSB ranks high academically, has produced a number of Nobel Laureates, Guggenheim and MacArthur Fellows, and features unique academic foci such as the Institute of Theoretical Physics, the College of Creative Studies, and the Koegel Autism Center.

U.S. News and World Report ranked UCSB number 11 among all public universities. Leiden University in the Netherlands ranked UCSB number two in the world in terms of impact in the field of the sciences.

I left I.V. to move to the Santa Barbara mountains after I graduated and started working on a farm in neighboring Goleta. Then I left for Europe, partly because the older staff of the school newspaper, the Daily Nexus, graduated and moved to Prague and encouraged those of us who worked on the paper to move to Czechoslovakia and work on their nascent English-language paper, Prognosis.

Before I flew off, I returned to I.V. for a few days to say goodbye. I stopped by the food co-op where I had shopped and worked. A young woman I kind of knew there encouraged me to stay another day. At night she suggested I stay over and said I should crash in her bed. When her boyfriend came home and found me casually sleeping next to her, he said, "You don't have to get up. Stay where you are. I will just sleep over here." And with that he flopped on their couch.

I.V. is that kind of place. I remember a roommate of a girlfriend, who in any other place may have been a little more protected, slept with a homeless man in I.V.'s Anisq'Oyo' Park just because he seemed like a nice person. And I remember how other homeless men used my friends' bathrooms on occasion to clean up. Once I spent almost all of one week hanging out with an older homeless man, not out of charity but simply because we got along together. One of my closest friends in I.V. was not even a student, but an older lady who was a music teacher in a local school and who owned a bookstore.  The point is, I.V. is a very accepting place without a lot of pretension, and the student life there is not the end-all, be-all.

The first few days after the rampage, I could not even read about it. I was in denial something happened there. I am trying to make sense of it now, and thinking not so much about the what could have prevented things as it spiraled out of control, but what could have diverted his character away from even thinking those thoughts. I ask myself what friendships he lacked or activities he could have been engaged with to deal with his issues. 

I look back at my time in I.V. and I see myself as a very happy person. Of course I remember my own demons, and low spots but there were always positive swings of friendships, my studies, and the beautiful environment.

I just dug through my photos to see what I have left from my college years. I found only two pictures: one of a friend cutting my hair freshman year at Coal Oil Point (top), which is the surfing area for UCSB students. The other picture is of my somewhat brief encounter in the Greek system. My roommate (pictured sitting next to me on the beach) and I looked into rushing a fraternity freshman year. It did not go so well so he brought me to a sorority house for a party. I actually did not understand how it worked but we were "adopted" by sorority girls. The bottom picture is of me and my big sister (a senior), who I just realized, was from ΑΦ - Alpha Phi sorority, the target of Rodger. 

Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Thin Edge of Nothingness

by Drew Martin
I just watched a riveting documentary called Men At Lunch about the iron workers who are immortalized in the photo known as "Lunch atop a Skyscraper" (pictured here, top)

The location of the image is at the 69th floor of 30 Rock (30 Rockefeller Plaza, also known as The Slab, formally named the GE Building, and previously known as the RCA Building).

It was a staged photograph of the site's actual iron workers as part of a larger promotional photoshoot for the Rockefeller Center in order to drum up excitement about the highrise project, and to lure corporate tenants.

The picture was taken on September 20, 1932. Although the actual photographer of this particular shot is not clear, it has been credited to Charles Ebbets who was directing the shoot. Also shooting with him that day were the photographers William Leftwich (pictured here, second from bottom) and Thomas Kelley (pictured here, bottom).

The image first appeared in the Sunday supplement of the New York Herald Tribune on October 2, 1932 and is now owned by Corbis. The corporation bought it from the United Press International news agency in 1995. It is the most valuable picture in their collection, and as the director of historical photography points out, it is an oddity in that most of the images that sell well are of specific personalities: Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy, Albert Einstein, Elizabeth Taylor, and so on.

At the time the picture was taken, a quarter of the New York workforce was unemployed, and the nation was 13 years into prohibition. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the governor of New York and less than a year away from becoming the President. The photo of the fearless workers preempted his We have nothing to fear but fear itself.

The filmmaker Ric Burns, who is well known for his documentary New York, speaks throughout this film. He says what makes Lunch atop a Skyscraper great is the number of questions it asks. He adds that a key element for him is the cable in the foreground, which he refers to as an umbilical cord.

It is a remarkable picture, and much of the documentary is about trying to identify the iron workers. While the image engages anyone who takes a look at it, many people have claimed relations to the men. It is a representative picture of an America that is toughing out the Depression, and as a land of opportunity for the wave of immigrants that came to New York City at that time. People want to be part of that to such an extent that they believe they have a personal connection.

The film was produced by the Irish Film Board and so there is a sentimental tone to it regarding the Irish immigrants. The workers on opposite sides of the beam are supposedly brothers from a village in Ireland, and the documentary interviews their senior citizen sons.

More fascinating to me than the workers in the shot are the photographers who were unaccustomed to working at those heights but spent the day straddling the beams in two-tone winged tips and wool suits along with their bulky cameras and extremely fragile glass plates, on which the pictures were exposed.

Click here to watch the trailer for Men At Lunch.

Friday, May 23, 2014

The Sports Gene

by Drew Martin
When I returned to America in 1997 after living in Europe for five years, I got the first temp job I could. It was mindless remittance work in a windowless bunker of a place managed by a timecard system. I had one friend there, a Jamaican girl named Racquel. She had a Haitian friend there named Ricky. It came up in conversation between us that I was a runner. He laughed and said white guys can't run. "Oh really?" was my response, which led to a showdown.

I agreed to run against Ricky on his local track up in the Monsey/Spring Valley, New York area, which is home to two very different diasporas: Hasids and Haitians. They do not mix in any way and even have their own taxis to service their communities.

When I showed up on the track and dropped my sweatpants, he exclaimed "Oh shit, you've got cuts" (defined muscles). He got a bit nervous and looked across the track. Back at work we had bet $20 to race one full lap but all of a sudden he was reconsidering. "One lap is too long," he said, "Let's race 100 meters."

I was not expecting this, and Ricky was a muscular sparkplug with a real sprinter's body. I am a long distance runner so the quarter mile was the fastest I ever raced, and only occasionally to help out in a relay. Ricky was powerful but short, so I was confident I could beat him. 

We ran 100 meters and I beat him by at least 10 meters. He said he wasn't warmed up and wanted to run again so I agreed. The second race was even worse. He was probably 15 to 20 meters behind me.

Ricky shook his head in disbelief. "You cheated" he claimed. "How so?" I asked. "You have a longer stride!" he answered. He hung his head down low. We went to a gas station where he paid to top off my tank (this was when gas was under $1 a gallon) and bought a bouquet of flowers for the twenty dollars.

Ricky had a right to be cocky because he comes from the Caribbean, which is home of the best sprinters in the world, and he was unabashedly vocal about running talent being so black and white. Genetic superiority in sports is a hushed conversation in America so a writer such as Malcolm Gladwell is applauded for spreading the word about the 10,000-hour rule, which states being the best at whatever one does is really a matter of putting that much time into one's craft. That sits well in a world where we encourage everyone to give it a shot, and we cheer the underdog, but it does not answer the question of why so many Kenyans can run a marathon at a sub 5-minute-mile pace, and why Jamaicans dominate sprinting.

David Epstein, senior writer at Sports Illustrated, candidly takes this on in The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance. Epstein argues that the 10,000-hours rule camp do not "address the existence of genetically based talent because their work begins with subjects of high achievement in music and sports. When most of humanity has already been screened out of a study before it begins."

The Sports Gene is probably not a book I would have picked up on my own. I only started reading it because the shoeshine guy at work gave it to me. He used to play soccer in Brazil and comes by on bad weather days to ask me whether or not I did my morning run. He always leaves shouting "You're crazy!" Fortunately, for me, Epstein was a varsity track runner at Columbia University so it is mostly a book about running, and much more detailed than what Gladwell, also a really good runner, dishes out.

Epstein talks about the hardware of baseball players, the wingspan of basketball players, and the aerobic capacity of runners, cross-country skiers, and sled dogs. It turns out that the stiffness of my Achilles tendons is a running advantage, and also the reason why I stitched both of them in training years ago. 

The Sports Gene, was hard to put down. Unlike Gladwell's style, which is to propose an idea and follow through with supporting case studies, Epstein is more thorough and structures the read better by building on his thesis as he takes you through it.

Pictured (top) here is me in the Fall of 1986 during my senior year, leading my high school cross country team on a race we swept. Pictured (middle) is an older exchange student from Kenya who dominated our running program and humbled us as runners. The caption on this photo in our yearbook reads, 
Caiphus Vilakazi wins the 5 mile run for the third year. Pictured (bottom) is a quick chart I made to illustrate a section in The Sports Gene about the decline in the number of US and UK runners who could break a 2:20 marathon, the increase in Kenyans who have been able to, and the steady stream of Japanese who can do so.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Sixteen Going on Seventeen

by Drew Martin
Earlier tonight my six-year-old son and I rode our adult-kid tandem bike to a recreation area. Next to a soccer field and the town swimming lake is a concrete-surfaced, open-air rink where kids may put on their roller blades and play hockey. More often than not the rink is filled with skateboard ramps and rails as well as with all the teens showing off their skills. 

My son is learning to ride a skateboard now and is pretty good. The problem is it is a really sensitive crowd. Unlike rollerblades, which have a wider, less-cool audience, skateboarding is pretty much locked down to too-cool-for-school teenagers, for the most part guys, which is really awkward because they are trying so hard to be cool, and they are actually doing really dangerous and ballsy tricks but at the same time they still live at home, which is totally uncool. This situation creates tension when their status is jeopardized by the introduction of a dad and his son. 

Tonight the rink was buzzing with about twenty kids, so when we entered, we scooted over to the side and I sat on my board while I watched my son practice his moves. When it came time to leave at sunset, I hopped on my board and coasted over to him. One of the kids was trying to do a move and messed up. I was somewhat nearby and I think he was a little embarrassed and wanted to blame the mistake on me so he muttered, "thanks dad" as I went by. It was such a funny moment because I have not been called dad as an insult in my 15+ years as a parent.

I was thinking of creating this blood-font DAD shirt I just designed to wear when I return to the rink. I was also thinking of bringing a boombox and blasting Miley Cyrus to watch them scatter like roaches. My wife suggested the soundtrack for The Sound of Music.