Friday, October 30, 2009

Murakami...About Running: A Book Review

by Drew Martin

When I was studying art in college, my peers and I were gathered one day to hear a visiting Italian artist talk about a project he needed assistants for. With much enthusiasm he revealed to us that his undertaking was to honor the Stadium. We all fidgeted in our seats and looked at each other with "Who let this guy in here?" expressions. Sports and the arts? It seemed like mixing oil and water. Though discus throwers, wrestlers, runners, boxers and rowers have been themes of classical art and for the realists; and, there was something in cycling for artists of the first half of the twentieth century, the arts have pretty much ignored sports as an inspired theme. The perfectly machined and symmetrical body in its neoclassical state seems fascistic. The athlete just seems too clean, plain and healthy for the creative soul.

Haruki Murakami, author of After Dark, The Elephant Vanishes, A Wild Sheep Chase (to name a few), however, writes about long distance running in his memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (published by Knopf, 2008). As a renowned fiction writer (most recently winning the Franz Kafka Prize) and marathon runner (at least 26 under his belt) and triathlete, the 60 year old Murakami brings the life of an athlete and artist into a comfortable existence and even plays with stereotypes:

"You live such a healthy life every day, Mr. Murakami, so don't you think you'll one day find yourself unable to write novels anymore?" People don't say this much when I'm abroad, but a lot of people in Japan seem to hold the view that writing novels is an unhealthy activity, that novelists are somewhat degenerate and have to live hazardous lives in order to write....Basically I agree with the view that writing novels is an unhealthy type of work. When we set off to write a novel, when we use writing to create a story, like it or not a kind of toxin that lies deep down in all humanity rises to the from the start, artistic activity contains elements that are unhealthy and antisocial.

A page later he offers:

To deal with something unhealthy, a person needs to be as healthy as possible...In other words, an unhealthy soul requires a healthy body...the healthy and the unhealthy are not necessarily at opposite ends of the spectrum. They don't stand in opposition to each other, but rather complement each other, and in some cases even band together.

Though What I Talk About...leans too much towards a physical journal and musings on the limitations of aging in the final chapters, Murakami's writing is always filtered through a literary discussing pain, he at times sounds like he is concluding Kafka's The Penal Colony:

I'm a physical, not intellectual...Only when I am given an actual physical burden and my muscles start to groan (and sometimes scream) does my comprehension meter shoot upward and I'm finally able to grasp something.

I love Murakami's simplest and most humble thoughts:

I don't necessarily write down what I'm thinking; it's just that as I write I think about things. As I write, I arrange my thoughts.

Or this morsel, bursting the horror vacui bubble:

I just run. I run in a void. Or maybe I should put it the other way: I run in order to acquire a void.

If not words to contemplate for one's own life,
perhaps this last quote here is something to mull over this Sunday during the New York City Marathon:

The end of the race is just a temporary marker without much significance. It's the same with our lives. Just because there's an end doesn't mean existence has meaning. An end point is simply set up as a temporary marker, or perhaps as an indirect metaphor for the fleeting nature of existence. It's very philosophical - not that at this point I'm thinking how philosophical it is. I just vaguely experience this idea, not with words, but as a physical sensation.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

I Think I Feel: A Mediated Shoe Review

by Drew Martin

At The New School I once wrote a paper that compared air conditioning window units to television...this was before flat screens, when TV's were boxier. I reduced each to the common denominator: squarish metal and plastic devices, which you plug into an electrical outlet, adjust to a certain setting and then sit back and enjoy the machine's purpose. Though the AC unit is not an image displaying device, the window unit physically blocks your view from the outside world, just as the TV distracts your attention from reality. And though there is no obvious message transmitting through the AC unit, it does alter your senses. It cools you and makes you feel better and in doing so it makes you stop thinking about how hot you were, which is certainly a consuming thought. In a cooler, calmer state your mind can focus on and entertain other thoughts.

In the movie The Family Man, Nicholas Cage's character is transformed from a high-powered, single New Yorker into a middle class father and tire salesman in suburban New Jersey. In this state he tries on a $2,400 suit while shopping in the mall with his family. To a bewildered wife played by Téa Leoni he says "It's an unbelievable thing. Wearing this suit actually makes me feel like a better person." This pretty much sums up fashion and how we perceive clothing. Like air conditioning, we focus on how things make us feel but we neglect how they make us think.

I recently bought the above pictured Tretorn boots because I wanted dry feet on rainy day commutes. Shoes are a form a media...they send a message and they influence how we feel and therefore how we think. As far as the Tretorns are concerned...they are a bit clownish, too wide and my pair leaked from the toe and sole on my maiden voyage. I thought they would make me feel warm, dry and "cool" but they make me feel a bit silly and the slight leak makes me feel vulnerable. I think I was seduced by a shoe that does not live up to my dream of it. It makes me think further about design flaws in everything.

When I do think about shoes in more general terms, I usually remind myself of a passage I once read about an early encounter of the British and native Americans (perhaps it was from The Last of the Mohicans). The native examines a stiff, heavy Western shoe and compares it to his soft moccasin. He concludes that the foreigners are so insensitive and clumsy because their soles are too thick and can therefore not 'sense' the earth with their feet.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

To Be or Not To Be

The Museum of Peripheral Art is currently developing its board and is seeking status as a non-profit educational organization in order to financially and creatively manage public art programs and projects. This status was pursued a couple years ago but was put on the back burner to develop the concept further.

Mission Statement
The Museum of Peripheral Art (MoPA) is a network of public art projects experienced in limitless contexts and environments.

Vision Statement
MoPA will be a catalyst for community development through the introduction of and dialogue with art at the street level.

Strategic Planning
MoPA’s long range plans are to establish MoPA sites around the world, which would be collaboratively created in conjunction with art education programs.

I have written before about the first MoPA project (see The Wall), which was is an outdoor shrine to my neighborhood and passersby. The first indoor MoPA exhibit was on December 2, 2006 and was held in a room in my house that was converted into a gallery. MoPA projects are primarily serendipitous encounters on town and city streets in niches and vacant display windows. Part of the scope of MoPA is to extend public space into private space, encouraging shop keepers and homeowners to turn over part of their property for the public. For this event, a room was given the name 209 South Broad Street Gallery and a show was put on for the neighborhood. The show was called The Winter House: Lost & Found and is explained in the invite:

The 'winter house' is the zoo building for animals that would not survive a winter in their viewing cages. The 209 South Broad Street Gallery is taking in a collection of sculptures from The Wall for the winter. The pieces are shown with a selection of other works that share the status of being lost and found. They have either lost their owner or function, but they have also been found; their forms rediscovered. Please join us for wine and cheese this Saturday, December 2 from 5-6 pm, for this pre-tree lighting event.

Some of the objects in the show included Tropaion, Polyphemus and Petina. Tropaion, (pictured at the top of this entry) was named after the Greek origin of the word trophy, which meant a monument of an enemy's defeat. It consisted of the spoils of the vanquished foe displayed at the respective battlefield or the capitol of the conquered nation. Many trophies were left at The Wall, as was the metal casing of this piece, originally for a clock. In Tropaion, a modern silver swimmer prepares to dive through an ancient building. Polyphemus, (pictured in the invite) is named after Homer's cyclops whom Ulysses blinds in The Odyssey. The two orifices of this piece allude to both the plucked eye socket and the groaning mouth of the giant. Petina (pictured left) is the mascot of MoPA and although its origin is a mass-produced lawn ornament, it has developed a unique character though its own demise after leaving its comfortable life on a suburban lawn. It is also the inspiration for the show, protecting it further from the elements, giving this animal a true winter house.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

All the World's a Painting: An Interview with Veru Narula

I have spent a lot of time discussing the relationship of image and text with artists. Your works seem to be a way for you consolidate a large amount of text in one space with images. Is this a way for you to personally wrap your head around a topic or do you see it more as a way to compress ideas for the viewer to unpack and explore?

It’s a great question. The visual language is similar to the written or spoken in that ultimately, it is rooted in a means of communication. Whether it is an idea or a human complexity, language aims to connect. In my works, I’m not necessarily trying to compress an idea or explain my own interpretation. Rather, I’m trying to connect to this root idea by communicating with the viewer. Hopefully, it’s in a way that’s engaging. I always think to myself, “If I’ve done my job right as the artist, then the visual can only be enhanced by text.”

Your work is a kind of story telling. Explain how you use different visual devices and layering to be allegorical and what do you think is effective in this approach and what do you see as a shortcoming?

I definitely enjoy the process of story telling, and since I like to paint ideas, it’s a natural fit. One of the visual devices I use a lot is hands. It’s a very human and universal symbol, yet each gesture signifies a different action or emotion. On the one hand, it picks up the modern connotations and social interactions we’re so used to. On the other, it can be limiting for the visual vocabulary I like to employ. I have to make choices though, and some are obviously more successful than others.

In your exhibition overview for your series All The World's A Stage, you refer to your work as 'contemporary' paintings. Are you using that term strictly in a temporal sense or stylistically? From the images of your work I have seen, it seems to reflect the styles of Kahlo and the past, deceased surrealists such as Magritte and Dali.

I think contemporary certainly has a temporal sense because it chronicles many of the modern global political situations. More so, the paintings are contemporary because they consider the modern viewer’s exposure to varieties of media and the internet gallery of web images. The paintings are oil representations of today’s modern situations, certainly with some style precedents of the artists you mentioned, but also with new influences of today. Vibrant colors touch us in amazing ways, so I’m flattered to be compared to those precedent artists.

When I think of Shakespeare in visual terms, very few images actually come to mind...perhaps King Leer with bandaged eyes, Hamlet with a skull, Romeo and Juliet by in their final moment, lying dead side by side. Perhaps this is because Shakespeare is so much about playing with words and not about conjuring images. Where do your images for Shakespeare start?

I used to love Shakespeare when I read him in my school days, but didn’t really understand his universality until I revisited the works as an adult. I guess in some sense the images are part school-boy memories, part adult interpretation, and just given the parallels with the global political stage, part integration with the modern day. The beauty of Shakespeare is his universal appeal and the way he touches our minds through words. If I can touch a viewers mind through visual, then I know I’ve done something noteworthy.

You link Shakespeare's works with current events. Why is painting the meeting ground for these parallels, as opposed to film, cartoons, essays, etc?

I love the paradox of it all! On the one side, you have current event imagery which we see from Twitter, or internet entries or news broadcasts. By tomorrow they’re in some archive only to fade out in news highlight reels. When you stand in front of a painting, you’re always in the present. It’s physical. It’s immediate. It shines. I love that, and I wanted integrate an exhibition that combines theater, literature and visual art.

Tell us a little bit about you upbringing? You were born here but have been influenced by other cultures. Your last name is Indian. Your first name is from the Slavic root for faith/belief/truth. How does all of this influence your imagery, palette and storytelling? Your use of Shakespeare suggests a very universal outlook and searching for a common ground.

I’m very fortunate for my upbringing. I am an only child, and my parents always allowed me to explore my creativity and not get bogged down in paradigms from others. They both painted, but in very different styles. My dad was an engineer, so he was very controlled and linear. My mother is more emotive, so she connects to a viewer in a very real, Aquarian way in her art.

As for my name, I think having two cultural references definitely is a reminder of the global spectrum in which we live. As a part of Generation Y, it’s just how we think, and I’m grateful. I’m not so naïve to realize it’s a lot of hard work bridging cultures around the world. It takes a lot of patience, understanding, controlling of egos. Open mindedness is hard to achieve, and there’s a lot of history we need to address to move forward, but in the 21st century I hope we will bridge more of the gaps. It may sound idealistic and cliché, but I look forward to a time when the earth shall be as one.

Tell us a little bit about your 'day job', which in your case is more of a career, and how your paintings and professional work influence each other, not just in approach to things but also in terms of being alone with your painting versus being part of a larger, more social organism/machine.

In my day job, I work in marketing and graphics. It’s great hours because it gives me time in the evenings for painting, and I learn the business approach to imagery and visual. When you’re working behind someone else’s brand, you learn a whole new side of things, and new perspective on visual interpretation in a way that is both positive and harmful to the brand. From that respect, it keeps me grounded with a wider spectrum of people. When you’re working on paintings in a studio, you have a much smaller subset of those perspectives. As the artist though, you have full autonomy, and I love that ability to realize a vision in its entirety. I’ve never believed in having to have just one singularity, but rather a progression in one’s day- it keeps me constantly learning!

What is your favorite painting and why?

Within the series All The World’s a Stage, my favorite painting is Honest (Iran) Iago. Here I compare the Iranian president Ahmadinejad to the character of Iago, who tempts Othello into believing his wife has had an affair. The colors are beautiful and the contrast created visually by two views of Iran was exciting. I painted it in 2007/2008 before the re-election of 2009, and that prediction of him manipulating the government and the people came true. The fact that he was able to carry the election, and the way he’s reacted to the UN probe on Uranium enrichment is really startling, and it’s an affirmation of the painting’s prediction.

My all time favorite painting of mine is one I did called A Prayer in Sacre Couer (pictured above with hands comment). Thematically and visually, it’s about a woman who lights a candle, and her hands become the Church. It’s about taking control of one’s spirituality that transcends religious dogma. I had envisioned this is what the mother Mary might have done many years after her son Jesus was resurrected- Somewhere quiet and by herself. I think it is a very personal piece, at a time in my life where some major life decisions were very raw, so it means more to me than just the pure execution of the work.

Thank you for your time. In parting, tell us a bit what you want to do with your paintings in the near and distant future.

Thank you for having me. Next on the horizon, I’m in the midst of an underwater painting series that looks into different Alternative Energy sources. Often times, Alternative Energy or Clean Tech can seem theoretical or abstract. I wanted to get personal, and look at our daily activities of swimming, kissing, loving, growing and contrast it with how to think innovatively about new means of energy sources. My ultimate vision is to turn a gallery or space into an underwater think tank!

Friday, October 23, 2009

Different Strokes: A Book Review

by Drew Martin

Through my writings at the Museum of Peripheral Art I have primarily addressed the visual arts because my education and lifelong interests are in the arts but I would like to cast a bigger net to incorporate my graduate work and matured/broader interests: Media Studies, which incorporates the arts, film, literature, television, radio and the Internet. My comments will not be typical of film and book reviews because they reach beyond the specific medium with an interdisciplinary scope. (See earlier posting on Synesthetic Interpretations comparing Stanley Kubrick's treatment of Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey)

I just finished reading My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist's Personal Journey by Jill Bolte Taylor, Ph.D. (published by Viking, 2006). It is the most open and beautiful writing I have ever read. The beauty is not in the craft, style or structure. I even winced a couple times at the grammar ("self-medicating themselves")....but this is the closest I have come to feeling befriended by a book and its author without the trappings of cynicism or unhealthy and needy emotions. Typically, I would feel a slight pang of sadness upon completing such a thoughtful book but it is so liberating that one can only walk away from it feeling content and one with this world.

This short book (fewer than 200 pages) is really two books. The first part professionally/academically details the debilitation and recovery from a stroke by the author, a neuroanatomist.

"The type of stroke I experienced was a severe hemorrhage in the left hemisphere of my brain due to an undiagnosed AVM (arterovenous malformation). On the morning of the stroke, this massive hemorrhage rendered me so completely disabled that I describe myself as an infant in a woman's body. Two and a half weeks after the stroke, I underwent major surgery to remove a golf ball-sized blood clot that was obstructing my brain's ability to transmit information."

The second section is a kind of self-help guide to one's mind, emotions and relationships (with people, food, music and the universe).

"...I learned that I had the power to choose whether to hook into a feeling and prolong its presence in my body, or just let it quickly flow right out of me. I made my decisions based upon how things felt inside. There were certain emotions like anger, frustration or fear that felt uncomfortable when they surged through my body. So I told my brain that I didn't like that feeling and didn't want to hook into those neural loops. I learned that I could use my left brain and tell it what I wanted and I didn't want. Upon this realization, I knew I would never return to the personality I had been before. I suddenly had much more to say about how I felt and for how long, and I was adamantly opposed to reactivating old painful emotional circuits."

I do not think Bolte consciously/cleverly set up a lobed book, divided left then right-brain, respectively. It was just a simple way for her to write: tell the facts, then say what she learned. The account of the stroke is fascinating and a must-read for everyone because it takes a compassionate look at an injured mind and is relevant to anyone with a friend or relative with special needs and is just as helpful for the average passerby to rethink the state of someone he or she pities in public. The second part is worthy of its quotes from Einstein and Gandhi because it deconstructs the thinking of such intensely intelligent humans. If there is a fault to the book, it is that it caters to people like me, severely right-brained. I imagine many sections are quickly dismissed by more analytical people, but Bolte guides the reader so gently into her calm, quiet world and establishes that we are all a blood clot away from her experience so she is able to disarm the most suspicious readers. With this approach she naturally uses a lead-in that parallels our engagement with her and her story/book.

Bolte's recovery is a matter of will and discipline but is also an act of pure love by her mother, who reteaches her new (37 year old) infant how to count, read, walk, talk and think. It is an account as touching and astonishing as Helen Keller and "The Miracle Worker". When I finished reading, I thought to myself "Now there's a book one certainly cannot turn into a film" but that just brought to mind Julian Schnabel's painterly The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which turns Jean-Dominique Bauby's stroke and resulting locked-
in syndrome into a narrated 'art' movie.

It would be a great pity to offer us anything other than Bolte's deep and abstract inner thoughts. A book is personal and contemplative and in this form Bolte wraps the reader in her insight like a plush blanket.

Though Bolte occasionally lingers, she is not exhaustive and I often wished she would go off on more adventurous tangents to entertain the thoughts she initiates. I would, for example, like her to explore in greater detail the feeling of creating art and how one experiences viewing art. I would like to think that the arts have the ability to stimulate the parts of the brain in the audience from which the creators work from in order to share joy, creativity and love...and, in doing so have the ability to develop that part of the brain, which would then override more primal instincts.

Bolte explains that before recovering from the stroke, she could not write or read (a left brain activity) but she was able to type on a computer because it is a shared, ambidextrous action using both sides of her brain. Does this mean that writing by hand and typing with both hands access different thoughts? Truman Capote once commented that Jack Kerouac's On The Road was not writing but typing. While this quip illustrates Marshall McLuhan's 'the medium is the message,' Bolte seems to be suggesting that the message is already influenced by the medium on a neurological level even before it is expressed through the medium. Is the ambidextrous, keyboard-ready mind simply working from a less analytical part of the brain than the hand-writing mind, which generated wonders such as the Declaration of Independence?

I started missing the effect of Bolte's written kindness the morning after completing it. The influence wore off too quickly. Bolte's magic is not a removed, external beauty but one that flows within you. The book is not plot driven or a mystery, reduced to simple facts and conclusions. It is experiential and it reminds me that even while her story is told through a book, the book is really just paper and ink that stores the energy of her mind and the content of her thoughts.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Gifts of Gifts

by Drew Martin

My father's father was a tinkerer. In the early 1900's, he made a telescopic, "cherry picker" vehicle (for painting barns) out of the detritus of a plane that crashed in his fields. He made his own dentures in his later years and he was always making models of houses he wanted to build for his family even after he built a beautiful modern home on the Potomac River. My father is also a tinkerer and very handy and skilled with tools. Amongst other things, he invented a plug box to lock our television plug to deter me from watching TV when I was a kid.

A few years ago I asked my family to start making gifts for me instead of buying them. My father responded first with wooden links he carved from one piece of wood, followed by a miniature table, still attached to its original block of wood. It is one of my favorite works. I like it so much because my father made it specifically for me but also because it was such a creative, conceptual and artistic leap for him after a life of practical application. It was a gift born from discovering a gift. I especially like the table because of his process and the story behind it, which spans 14 years. The wood for both projects, as well as similar sculptures he made for my brother and his brother were all from the same his words...

"a black walnut tree, which I planted on 05-20-1989 as a bare-root sapling, two feet in length. After growing to a height of 45 feet (as measured after felling it) and a trunk diameter of 11 inches at ground level, I cut it down on 10-21-2003. I cut into fireplace length sections because the wood was white rather than a dark brown which I expected. In the spring of the next year, I noticed while splitting some of it that the wood had turned dark brown. I saved some for carving."

My mother's father was not a tinkerer or skilled with tools and yet he once whittled two slingshots (for my brother and me) when we were young boys. The wide, white rubber, elastic straps that he fastened to the posts deteriorated a decade ago. What is left is the simple Y-frame, with a hard, glossy patina of adventurous dirt, oil and sweat from my once youthful hands. For something never intended to be viewed as art, this remaining artifact has a beautiful, formal and timeless presence.