Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Decline of Western Alphabetization

by Drew Martin

Alphabets are peculiar creations. They are not essential to language but are very common and some cultures have grown quite attached to them. The northern regions of North America were populated for at least twenty thousand years with people that did not even possess a written language and the world's most populous country, China, has a written language based on pictographs and does not use an alphabet to create words.

It is hard not to think of a first grade classroom without an alphabet running along a wall or little kids singing what we know as the ABC's. Even after one accepts the role the alphabet plays in language and grasps that letters are simply marks for consonants and vowels, it is still a bit disorienting to realize that the order of our alphabet seems random. A, B, C, D, E, F, G might as well be F, E, A, G, D. Oral language precedes written language, both historically and developmentally, per individual, so I thought that perhaps the order of the alphabet has something to do with a reflection of usage. This kind of makes sense when you consider the rank of XYZ but then RST should be before Q and O should be up front, although English inherited its alphabet from Latin, which does favor the Q. The order of the alphabet, like the QWERTY keyword, is most likely a previously determined and purposeful structure, which we simply hold on to.

I am sure the set arrangement of the seminal alphabets took awhile to shake out and the idea of alphabetization beyond the order of an alphabet did not actually catch on until fairly recently. There were instances in ancient Greek culture of subject alphabetization but its usage was not more common until the middle ages. As I recall from reading The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, the OED, created in the mid 1800s, was the first English dictionary to fully commit to alphabetization and previous English dictionaries were more relational. It sounds odd and dysfunctional but the reign of alphabetization has already peaked and is quickly declining because it is not always efficient and actually causes a lot of problems. Search engines are relational and the more information you have the more troublesome alphabetization is.

I recently joined facebook and was surprised to find that friends, by default, are sorted in alphabetical order by first name. That works fine and such a list is easy to browse when someone has 40 friends but the more friends someone has, the more cumbersome it gets. So facebook has various ways to sort, including thumbnails of everyone as well as by mutual relations, recent updates, college friends, work friends and by city. Postings are chronologically stored, ranking the most recent posts at the top of the wall. Google works quite sorts based on popularity or forced paid ranking. The only true way to sort is numerically.

Since the dawn of computers, letters moved from being an arrangement of strokes on a given medium to a numerical code. Even keywords are really just an arrangement of numbers, not very different than how a date is structured. This digitization of text changed everything and is patiently waiting for humans to think a little differently: more creatively. Currently we sort by alphabet, date, category, keyword and popularity and these can be quite frustrating. Alphabetical sorting is especially frustrating in some software packages, such as Adobe Illustrator, where I have to open up several panes of font lists to get to fonts "down" on the list...such as Trajan. If I need Trajan, I need it as quickly as I need Helvetica or Arial and there is no reason it should take longer. For that matter, I need to know what Trajan looks like otherwise I am shooting in the dark. I recall Corel Draw having a much better sort, which altered the text highlighted to take on the font characteristic of the font name you were scrolling over.

Keyword searching is even more frustrating when the results are ranked by popularity, as with Google. I was recently trying to find images from Gray's Anatomy, the classic medical illustration tome but all the results I got were pictures of cast from the television show Grey's Anatomy. Searching for images is an interesting situation because language is the limit. In text searches we want that limit. Let's say I want to learn more about women, so I would Google "women". My results should therefore be in the English language. If that is my native language and possibly the only language I know then that's perfect because there is no reason for me to attempt to read an untranslated essay in a language that is foreign.

With images, however, my return is severely limited by the word I use to search. If I search for women then I will only get a return of images with women in the file name or keyword...but then I am missing out on the uploads from all over the world in other languages for women. Image searches should be tied to a translation program so if I type in woman, I also get zeny, mujeres, damen...etc. What is also missing is a way to search for images without words...via images. This kind of happens now with thumbnail views but the driver behind that is a word search. At a local level I can bypass words and do an image search on my computer just by viewing thumbnail properties but then I am simply looking at thumbnails and not actually using images to search.

Since images in the world of computers are actually numbers and colors are simply R,G,B number combinations, it should be quite easy to search by colors directly from the file properties and bypass search words altogether. There could be a grid of color swatches in a search engine and by clicking on an orange swatch my return would show me images with large swatches of orange in them: a glass of orange juice, Tibetan monks, a beautiful sunset, etc. The programing behind this might simply read every pixel in an image and give me a return for any image that has more than 50% of its pixels in a certain orange range. The next step would be shape based searches...if I click on a triangle I get pictures of pyramids, dunce caps, roofs, tents, and yield and safety signs. Likewise, if I click on a circle my return would include images of the sun, a full moon, planets, a soccer ball, a clown nose and the Google logo.

As with the color search, the numeric code behind images would express that there are triangular or circular elements in an image, which a computer program would recognize, the same way a trained graphic artist knows the R,G,B code: 0,0,50 is navy blue. Since humans and animals are graphically just shapes, more advanced form searches could be created for identifying, for example, a woman riding a horse that would not require those words or related words, such as "equestrian". What I am suggesting is indeed distancing us further from the "literal turn" but it does not abolish language. If anything, it embraces a more universal experience of communication and does not favor a particular language and the culture tied to it.

Beard alphabet by TimYarzhombeckLink

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Shrink: A Movie Review

by Drew Martin

I saw the movie Shrink last night and I actually watched it to the end because there were a lot of things I found interesting that were intended and, more interestingly, unintended. Shrink stars Kevin Spacey, who is good for the part of Henry Carter, a broken and doped psychiatrist. There is nothing new in the film and the message and meaning of it wasn't worth the nominal library rental fee but it is a film I will think about for a while. For one thing, I like when a film's title works perfectly, as does Shrink.

Shrink, refers to Carter as psychiatrist, a profession that is presented here as a family trade and is the mode in which all relationships are managed throughout the film. The title is great for many other reasons...for starters all the events are shrunk into Hollywood/Los Angeles. A decadent/bacchanalian party teeters on the Pacific bluffs and the only other boundary is the HOLLYWOOD sign which serves as a border and the of edge of the limits of the characters. Shrink can also refer to the emasculating and neutering of several of the characters. Carter shrinks away from relationships at first and a patient Jack Holden, played by Robin Williams, is an aging Casanova who wants his problem to be sex addiction, because that would permit his longed for sexcapades, which he feels denied in marriage. This believed problem, like all the other problems of the characters, whether it is smoking marijuana, abusing liquor or wallowing in grief are really veneers for a basic loss of self respect.

With this thinking, the film has a lot of potential. All of the characters, including the psychiatrists, are really just patients being presented to us to observe...but I am afraid this might be loss on most viewers because of other, more obvious presentations. Another thing I liked about this film was the use of space. The glassy houses and offices do not offer us true interiors, which is really a comment about the characters, who are all quite shallow. It is only in the end that Carter can enter his cave-like master bedroom, which he once shared with a wife who committed suicide. That space is a real interior: a bed you want to crawl into, which is up against a solid stone wall. Carter spends all of his time between clients taking hits of weed in an empty lot behind his building. That junky lot and the under-a-freeway house of one of the characters are two of the only genuine spaces in the movie.

In a city designed for cars, intimacy, whether it's frolicking with a pregnant woman or dealer/drug client conversations, happens inside cars and the only genuine touch are a couple Vespa hugging-in-motion scenes. Impersonal sex only happens in sterile offices and swanky hotels, but these are only before and after glimpses. The greatest character flaw is narcissism and there are many degrees of it in Shrink. The self-absorbed characters make sunny, warm California a very cold and lonely place. The attention to self is immediately met on screen with the neglect of meaningful relationships, health and life itself. Unlike the other themes, narcissism is perhaps the most extensive characteristic here because it additionally comments on the characters lives and Hollywood: the profession of acting and the medium of film.

The "happy ending" here is that Jemma, played by Keke Palmer, is a girl with "real problems" (and a patient of Carter) who is enlightened after reading a script, written behind her back, about her hard knock life. This revelation unifies her with Carter and the wayward writer of the script, who she is at first infuriated with because he enters her world through Carter in order to score the material. The editing together of people's lives here is less small-world coincidental than it is claustrophobic. The most disappointing part of the ending is that the Jemma's acceptance is validated by an A-list Hollywood agent, which is that saddest comment of all because he, like most of the characters, is an unlikeable person we are somehow expected to warm up to.

Though there are a lot of references to television and movies, the content is rarely shown. Television works here as a public Catholic confessional, where you can come clean while airing live. Movies are ridiculed in one scene about executives deciding on a premise while they are simultaneously elevated as something to aspire to be in or produce. They are also presented here as alternative to psychiatry. In this regard they are more about the past, where the person sits alone in darkness and contemplates life. This Quaker sensibility of rehabilitation is rewarded in the end by a physical and emotional liberation. Jemma deals with the untold loss of her mother by watching older movies in theaters. She collects the ticket stubs and tapes them to her ceiling, which she conclusively tears up and tosses into the abyss of Hollywood from its signage border. Whether or not the ending is actually supposed to be uplifting, it struck me as cynically depressing and condemning, like the inescapable cycling of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and denies a freedom as attempted in movies like The Truman Show, Brazil or Fahrenheit 451.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Too Films

by Drew Martin

I had roommate in college...actually, it's more like I slept on my friend's couch after I was not permitted to squat my personal art studio at school any more...who was a film student. At a certain point he realized he did not like any film and so his rating system was based on how much suffering each film caused him. Not to be cynical, but I think this is an honest approach. Personally, no matter how good a film is, I always feel that I have lost two hours of my life at the end unless I got something accomplished during it, such as ironing or having had the opportunity to sit next to a loved one. To idly watch a film alone is deadening for me. In my house, movies are something that happen around me...someone is watching something and I may or may not have a look.

Two films I saw in the past two months that I wanted to comment on, both too commercial for my taste, were Julia & Julia and Local Color. The reason why I am mentioning these is because of their relevance to this blog's stream of thought. Julia & Julia was much better than I expected and it was hard not to like with good performances by Meryl Streep and Amy Adams playing Julia Child and Julie Powell, respectively. The parallel lives of the women are moved along through recipes, and food becomes the metaphor for accomplishments and obstacles, success and failure, equal opportunities and chauvinism, as well as passion and neglect. There is, however, another well developed theme: media...or at least writing. By writing I mean the act of moving one's thoughts and actions into words and the world of editing, acceptance, rejection, persistence and publication. The difference between Child's heavy culinary tomes and the younger Powell's chirpy daily blog entries are transparent and both move towards mainstreaming: the future of Child's television persona and Powell's movie deal, which you are actually watching.

The other film, Local Color sounds like a film I would like...and I probably would have liked it as a book...about the relationship of an eager young painter and a crusty old Russian impressionist. The acting was not good, the script was forced and all the great lines about art and artists were so heavy handed that it was painful to watch. Though I love documentaries about artists, the reenactments always leave a bad taste in my mouth, as did Pollock, as did Basquiat. The problem for me is usually the focus on the surface and the lack of art in the making...uncreative films about creativity. In Local Color it was hard not to make the connection between the blatant expression of the story and the call for respect of representational art. Fortunately, I disliked the film so much that I went to bed early and got an hour more of sleep, which I would have missed had it been a good film.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Camille Utterback: Working at the Need of Light

by Drew Martin

I never tire of the story about Albert Einstein standing mesmerized before Alexander Calder's kinetic/motorized sculpture called A Universe and how he was fixed to it for the entire 40 minute cycle. It is an interesting circumstance primarily because we do not know what Einstein was thinking. Was he trying to figure it out or was he simply observing it? Was there something scientific to it that made him think about a more advanced system or was he simply absorbed with childish delight? When it completed its cycle, was he disappointed or pleased?

Whichever the case, Einstein was the ultimate viewer, engaged and focused, just as Calder was the ultimate artist, redefining what art is and could be and making work that might require a good portion of an hour to witness. Does this exchange represent a time when perhaps the leaders in the sciences and the arts were more likely to be household names and their fields were more influential, interdisciplinary and even, at times mutual?

As we know from Leonardo da Vinci, the arts and sciences can coexist and at times be the same entity. This relationship, tangential or intertwined, has not been lost as we have seen it remarkably surface throughout history. Georges Seurat comes to mind with his pointillism/divisionism, which reflected a time when the sciences were discussing a physical world made up of atoms. I have always found it remarkable how diverse and flexible art can be. Since my early teenage years, I was immersed in Gray's Anatomy, with those detailed drawings that show us our bodies flayed open. Art can be this precise and it can be what Salvador Dali gave us, an art that takes us on a figurative journey inside our psyche or what Mark Rothko gave us, abstract landscapes of internal emotions.

This posting was going to turn towards a kind of manifesto, which started as "I want to see the arts and other disciplines play more together and learn from each other..." but then I realized it would be better to highlight someone who is already combining different fields with his or her talents. The first person to come to mind is Camille Utterback who was one of the 2009 MacArthur Fellows, or more commonly put, a recipient of the $500,000 MacArthur Genius Award.

Camille combines art, architecture and her own computer programing to create interactive public works. In her 2007 piece Abundance, Camille installed a temporary outdoor video projection onto San Jose’s Richard Meier-designed City Hall dome and transformed an impersonal modern office plaza into an interactive environment that responded to human presence. Abundance tracked the movement of people across the plaza but also introduced graphic elements to interface with. The most powerful aspect of this work was how the programming interpreted the interactions. A lone person was one cold color but when that person was joined by another the new group became a warm color, which is simply a beautiful representation of what does happen when we are alone and then meet someone: our mass unifies, which makes us walk differently, and the color of our mood, voice, expressions and thoughts change, usually towards an elated, cheerful tone.

A more recent project, Aurora Organ translates human presence into light. The site-specific and interactive sculpture is installed in the 80 ft tall atrium of the Showplace Theaters in St. Louis Park, Minnesota.

Camille Utterback received a B.A. (1992) from Williams College and an M.P.S. (1999) from the Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University. Her work has appeared in numerous solo and group exhibitions at such venues as the New Museum of Contemporary Art, the Fabric Workshop, the Netherlands Media Art Institute, and the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.

Click here or on the picture of Abundance above to view a video of that project.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Saving Face

by Drew Martin

When I was in middle school, Sony's North America Headquarters literally landed in a field right on the edge of my home town like a sizzling UFO. This was when Sony held the same cutting edge status as today's Apple because their Walkman changed the way people listened to music; in a very cool and removed way.

Before the Walkman, music was primarily blasted from radios and out of car windows. It was pushed out. The bane of my mother's summers was the teenage neighbor's weekly car washing day with his radio turned up loud enough to be heard for a mile around. The Walkman made music introverted, more individualized, polite and quiet.

I did not have a Walkman but Sony influenced me in a much more personal way...we got the kids...the Japanese children of the transplanted employees. The one I remember the most was Hiroshi. I still see him on the first day of gym class in his brand new Puma shoes. He stood in the center of the basketball court, before all the boys, and asked us to hit him in the stomach as hard as we could so he could show us how strong he was. When he was about to leave, a year later, we all danced like crazy to Styx's Domo Arigato Mr. Roboto with him. It's no wonder I am such an indifferent laggard when it comes to technology because as long as I can remember gadgets have not affected me directly but have always been about their larger social context.

I started venturing into Facebook today for the first time. While I could write about a restored connectivity with friends since my email account was hijacked or, as I have set this writing up, about the larger social significance with the pros and cons of virtual friendships or crowd behavior, I think the greatest impact of Facebook will be subtler. We talk so much about introductions and reintroductions but very little about farewells. The importance of the reintroduction will wane as the opportunities for decades of absence are diminished by social networking. In terms of the farewells, how will uninterrupted messaging and "Skype me when you land" reduce the emotionally loaded goodbyes? Eventually, sadly, Facebook or something like it will play a role in the final farewell as we all age and lose those close to us.

It will be interesting to see how this generation of high school students will depart and keep in touch upon graduation. The American high school program is about specialization. Students are placed in classes for their levels and they switch rooms. This is a very individualized approach to education compared to a European model where your have a group of students who are together for four years and often in a common classroom with rotating teachers. When I taught in Eastern Europe I was surprised by the group dynamics this created. In America, students cheat for their personal gain and sometimes to help a close friend. In Eastern Europe the whole class cheated together in a kind of solidarity against the teachers. The social networking reminds me a lot of the European classroom setting. So while we may also talk about the pros and cons of group actions, we are usually talking about just that...the actions as opposed to a new philosophy silently and unconsciously being explored, which is questioning the motives of the nascent packs.

My only comment to add about the virtual world is paraphrasing the painter Francis Bacon who said the purpose of art is to return the viewer more violently to reality. How profound is that? Is the purpose of our virtual worlds to return us to life with more better spouses, lovers, friends, parents and citizens so we can relish what is real and tangible in our lives?

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Young Man and the Sea: Peter Matthews at the Drawing Center

Who would wade out into the cold ocean water, stare off at the horizon and cryptically record one's observations for up to 11 hours without looking down at a piece of paper diligently nailed to a long wooden board? The answer is Peter Matthews, and he is perhaps one of the most peculiar artists I have ever met.

Yesterday, on a dreary Sunday, my daughter and I stopped by the Iannis Xenakis: Composer, Architect, Visionary show at the Drawing Center, which opened a couple days ago. That show is quite interesting and I would especially recommend it to both musicians and architects. Across the street at the Center's Drawing Room is
Selections Spring 2010: Sea Marks with works by Agnes Barley, Jerome Marshak and Peter Matthews...

"...three artists selected from the Viewing Program who notate, describe, and interpret aspects of the sea. The exhibition examines the capacity of drawing to represent something as dynamic, volatile, and vast as the ocean."

When we entered the extension gallery we saw Peter's work at the far end: three frenetic and jazzy scribblings at that distance, flanked by two walls of Barley's and Marshak's simple, geometric forms. The biggest treat was that Peter was there talking about his work to a visitor from MoMA.

Peter is based in Nottingham, East Midlands and got his MA Fine Art from Nottingham Trent University in 2003. He is a pleasant young man and fulfills most Americans' idea of the British, politely shy and creatively eccentric. When I first saw Peter's work and did not understand that he stood in the surf to draw, I thought his works were aerial views of the ocean...a mixture of cartography and calligraphy and I pictured him aimlessly drifting around in a small wooden boat, tethered only by a drawn line but his work is much more about the horizon, or perhaps more appropriately as a physicist might say, the event horizon, that border of a black hole where nothing, not even photons escape the gravitational pull.

For Americans, the ocean has many meanings depending on when our ancestors arrived and if they came as conquistadors, adventurers, fortune seekers, refugees or slaves. In each case the ocean, for better or worse, is something survived and in the past. Even though Peter has traveled extensively and is of a generation with distance-shrinking tools such as Skype, the ocean still seems to tune him into his national psyche for a more mysterious and perhaps threatening experience yet to be embarked upon. It is hard not to think of Shackleton's miraculous voyage or Turner's storm-tossed splinters of ships when looking at Peter's work.

At the end of our conversation, Peter seemed more concerned with his safe passage to the JFK airport than making it back across the pond. My daughter and I left the warm, bright gallery for the rainy SoHo streets, at which point she exhaustively demanded, "How long can you adults talk for?!"

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Drawing Recall

I write all the time but I have not drawn in over a year. When I write, I prefer to be around people as long as I can ignore them and they do not interrupt me. The best place for me to write is on packed commuter trains because of the motion and commotion. I require visuals to start with and trains offer montages of internal and external sights and stories. They also structure your time with their schedules and they remind me of my younger, carefree years crisscrossing Europe on the slightest whim, which is simply liberating. In order to draw, however, I need silence and stillness and to be entirely calm and relaxed, with no one observing. The best settings are cold, dark winters or still, hot summer nights, especially when everyone is sleeping and you know you can draw until dawn.

Yesterday, midday, I reluctantly slid my Borden & Riley sketch book, Sakura Micron pencils and generic pencils out of their hiding places. I was not inspired or even in the mood to draw but I realized I needed to simply try it again so I retired to my big warm bed and curled up with some supplies. I drew for an hour or two and though I am not happy with the drawings as drawings, I liked being in that very familiar zone again and I also like what I was trying to do. I was drawing to recall the past, specifically art projects I did twenty years ago, which I had never documented. For most artists, drawing is where it all begins, not only as one's developed skills but also at the conception of most projects. Richard Serra, for example, constantly draws visual notes-to-self. Once a piece of art is finished, however, scanners and digital cameras cap the process of creation with documentation and a second, virtual life. The conceptual and original drawings are always valued as the first step of the project and the thinking through of certain ideas but once the work is complete these same drawings lose their validity a little bit. People want to see how things really look, not approximations. Maybe this is because a drawing of something can signify that the attempt was never realized, like some of Claes Oldenburg's monumental objects.

Before computers, the 35mm slide was the standard way to document your work because, like a negative, there is a lot of information in film and this is what museums, galleries and schools reviewed for consideration. The problem is that certain things are simply gone and there is nothing to take a picture of. The first drawing I did yesterday was of a project I did for Ann Hamilton. We were asked to make sculptures/projects that were not a visual experience for the viewer. This, of course, is an impossible task because even a purely audio piece is visual and what I ended up making was "something to look at". My campus/college town was networked with bicycle paths and dense with bicycles and in addition to that, I was a cyclist and also made bicycles from odd parts. I wanted to do a piece that included a bike and bicycle parts, required some welding (because I had just learned to weld) and was entirely about motion. I made two large square frames from 2x4 lumber and stretched them with old bicycle tubes. The frames were hinged and the bicycle tube webs touched each other when the frames were closed. One end was fixed to a pivot post and the other had an axis with a gear welded to it, which was attached to and turned by a bicycle that I rode in circles around the pivot post. I blindfolded the viewer and sandwiched him or her in between the rubber meshes and then rode so the viewer was rotated and revolved.

Another project I documented with drawing yesterday was a site specific piece around the same time, which I collaborated on with another student. We chose the school library as our site. A unique feature of our campus was that it was on a point and was surrounded by the Pacific Ocean. So we did a series of cut-out books and left them innocently about on reading tables. Some were filled with sand, others had ocean water with seaweed hanging out, while others had tape recorders which played back our recordings of waves and sea gulls. These audio books were shelved in the stacks and could be heard only if you passed by them.

Friday, January 15, 2010

I Am Stealing Precious Light

i hesitate to take pictures
it is like thievery
almost like
i am stealing precious light
that these, my brothers and sisters,
need to live

The last stanza of Iron Flowers from Iron Flowers a Poetic Report on a Visit to Haiti by the African journalist and poet, Kalamu ya Salaam. Written in 1979.

If posting, or even thinking, about paintings and sculptures amidst human tragedies seems regardless, detached and insensitive then one's perspective of art is skewed. While I personally do not create politically specific art or art with obvious social issues, I do find art to be one of the most restorative means for one's emotions and psyche, especially in the face of disaster. On September 13th, 2001 I went with my family to Storm King Art Center. Two days prior I was four blocks away from the first tower when it started to collapse, witnessing the deaths and destruction. The reporting of the event seemed so removed from what I had seen and heard with my own eyes and ears. Journalism deepened the scars: freezing the agony and replaying the catastrophe for a situation we were all helpless. The massive Calder stabiles and the I-beam di Suvero works seemed especially beautiful and reassuring on that day I took off to spend in the green hills and meadows of Mountainville, NY.

I have not watched any footage of the quake in Haiti or browsed photos. I know how I will feel and I cannot pretend to be closer to those who suffer. The very act of looking seems wrong, like rubber necking a roadside fatality. I visited my friend Marie yesterday and asked about her mother, sister and other relatives in Haiti...thankfully they are all fine. Marie is every woman. I have worked with her for ten years. She is Haiti for me. She is classy, proud and respectful. She makes every man feel handsome and grateful to be alive. Every major issue in my life the past decade has been resolved by Marie. In one minute with her you realize that intelligence has nothing to do with education and power has nothing to do with rank. In parting, Marie said "Today is already a better day than yesterday."

So while there is nothing timely here, because I try to capture things that are timeless, I hope that what is taken away from this site about art and media is the creative spirit of humans and the positive construction of artists.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Bring It On: An Interview with John Coburn

John Coburn is a painter in the New York area who currently has a show at OPEN SOURCE, which I reviewed in the previous posting. The following is an email interview I had with him to discuss his background, his work and his thoughts about a few topics. Pictured below is "Bring It On" from 2006 (oil and aluminum leaf on canvas, 96" x 72").

We met at a party a couple years ago in the West Village. I think David Cerny was there too. It's a bit foggy for me because the parties in that house overlap for me and there is always a Czech in the mix. But I do remember visiting you in your studio in Jersey City, New Jersey shortly after and being amazed by all your books, depth of interest and knowledge in art and your array of works in progress. We talked for hours but I do not think we ever really spoke much about ourselves so please introduce yourself here and tell us a bit about your upbringing. I recall you studied in Paris but where are you from originally? There is something Canadian about you.

No, not exactly Canadian, I'm from small-town in western Massachusetts. My family founded and ran the local Newspaper there. Some of my ancestors were French-Canadian, and we lived briefly in Quebec City when I was a child and so that maybe why you thought I was from there. I guess you did a say “a bit” when it came to telling you about myself. I think I misread that at first, so here a year or so later I will try to encapsulate the memoir I was working on in answer to your question. It would go something like this: I’m a New Englander via Paris (Beaux-Arts 1987-92), now more or less a “New Yorker” (since 1995). Encouraged by my mother, I first took drawing lessons at age 7 with a former WPA artist (John Phelps). Later at age 14 I began private study with a Russian Émigré Artist (Shimon Okshteyn). It was the rigorous classical training in drawing that made the basis for the Soviet Socialist Realist Style combined with a semi-impressionistic manor of Landscape, Still-Life and Portrait Painting that looked a lot like turn-of-the-century Russian Art. At the Beaux-Arts, with little direction beyond that of the old Masters in the Louvre, I spent years trying to master representational concepts by working from imagination/memory. This period of study terminated years later when I was able to research anatomy in depth at the New York Academy. The point was, and I think still is, to draw and think in the same moment while watching the drawing unfold. I found the mimetic process dissatisfying because of that interruption, i.e., look at the drawing, look at the model, look at the drawing. During a period when I lived back in Western Massachusetts before coming to New York I became interested in Architecture which led to considerations of light and space from a very different perspective. This coincided with new areas of exploration in my work, culminating in the creation of a series of minimal and rectilinear reliefs very different from anything I had ever done. Though I didn’t continue in that vein at the time the door had been opened to possibilities only now realizing themselves in my work. Like almost every artist I know the reality of a “day job” has had a singular impact on the work not only in its limitations, but in unexpected gains. In my case the field of Architectural Painting has offered the experience of travel, both national and international, an exposure to the language of ornament and a diversity of methods and practices specific to that field. The introduction of some of those i.e., gilding, stenciling, wood graining have been the vehicle for whole new areas of subject matter I am currently exploring.

You now live and paint in NJ. You are a short subway ride away from NY and are in the periphery of all the museums, galleries and buzz of Manhattan. In terms of getting into the art market and art world it makes sense but does it make sense as an artist for inspiration, creativity and the space you need or is that gravitational pull too strong and do you find yourself thinking too much with NY in mind, perhaps catering to a certain audience?

Jersey City has provided me with affordable live-work conditions which are pretty much the deal-breaker for artists in this town. I’m not unique in feeling that I never take advantage enough of the cultural opportunities available, so I won’t elaborate on that well-worn subject, but I do feel more at home in the kind of urban and international environment that is NYC. Because of my family I still feel connected to New England and do manage to exit this bubble from time to time. On a practical level, my chances of survival are better here professionally and as an “emerging artist” I’m still paying my dues. As far as audience is concerned, I hope that my work has a broader reach.

Growing up studying the arts I considered styles - inherent abilities, movements - premeditated manifestations and periods (i.e. Picasso's blue period) - tidy historical reflections. How does a modern sense of a "series" fit in to all of this? It seems like you genuinely pursue your panel forms with a true sense of exploration the way Modrian, Smith or LeWitt explored basic shapes but the feeling I get from a lot of other artists, especially photographers is that they have to come up with a packaged concept first and then flesh it out, which seems limiting and a bit backwards. Does this staged approach stem from gallery demands or coffee table books in mind or do you think it is just a way for an artist to create structure in an amorphous field and give him or her something to focus on? I feel it is more often a matter of convenience than the monomania Claes Oldenburg spoke of, in which the subject, means everything.

I think most of us work better within some kinds of limits. To work in a series or recognize it as such during the course of a work helps one to narrow one’s focus. There are market pressures, for sure, to produce something stylistically recognizable as coherent, but more important is the necessity for clarity. With something as nebulous as metaphor the perceiver instinctively knows when a piece is trying to be too many things at once. Also, at the risk of being banal, you just get better at something doing it repetitively. To answer the first part of your question: my work is partially process-driven and that process involves a kind of formal research, so as you suggested, it’s not predetermined. In many ways I usually pick up where I left off.

I remember you were doing large decorative wall paintings as a day job. Disney World-Tokyo comes to mind as does another gig in Dubai, if I am not mistaken. This job has taken you around the world and it must have given you a unique perspective back at the level of your private creations and more personal scale. Do you still do this job and how has it influenced your paintings?

I touched on this already in answer to your first question, so I would only resume here that most importantly it has expanded my sphere of references and techniques. It also has broadened my understanding of Art History in familiarizing me with a whole area of design that is neatly bracketed out of that narrative. There is one other thing, and I can’t say that this idea is thoroughly digested yet, but it has suggested to me a potential for the rejuvenation of a relationship between Painting and Architecture.

Originally, I had wanted to interview you for an article about creation the artist creates his or her character, which in turn, gives direction and a sense of purpose to his or her work. I think I was much more specific with the request, asking you what is your creation myth. Fortunately, I think you found this a trivial pursuit and did not respond. So, what is it that puts you where you are artistically? You have an ancestor (your grandfather?) who was a pretty well known photographer. What's the link there, genes or being exposed to that?

The photographer in question: Alvin Langdon Coburn was a cousin of my Grandfather’s who moved to England as a young man and is buried there. He became quite famous for his photographs of famous men of the time and even though he was part of that Steiglitz “Camera Notes” circle was promptly forgotten. My father who had taken up photography for the family newspaper and had an interest in genealogy came across his work, but at the time there was no scholarship on him. That all has changed, there’s a big coffee-table sized book now available and you often see his work in the photography section of the Met. So it would make a nice “creation myth” to claim that there was some continuity between a remote famous ancestor and me, but that would of course be a lie. It is great that he has been rediscovered though, because he was an incredible photographer of the Symbolist School and participated in the English equivalent to Cubism, Vorticism.

While reading Thomas L. Friedman's The World Is Flat, a book about globalization, I started thinking about how this topic applies to the arts. What have you noticed in the past decade in terms of art centers and audiences around the world? We used to describe cultural influences in military and colonizing terms, i.e. British Invasion. Are we still a bunch of isolated villages or has the World Wide Web really made Tokyo as accessible as New York...or perhaps even more accessible? Is the art world the periphery vanishing? Where do you think the art market is going?

I read that one as well and though I did find parts of it interesting I can’t get beyond his role in promoting the Iraq War in 2003 and being such a cheerleader for the Neo-Liberal economic policies that have gotten us into so much trouble. That said, whatever cultural models were in play in the post-war period are clearly in flux, but certain centers clearly remain. Beyond that I wouldn’t pretend to have anything knowledgeable to say on the matter. I think it does create interesting problems when considering the lack of a shared historical narrative between the different cultures.

I have commented several times to you about a haunting feeling I get when I see your older diptych painting titled Huntsville, Alabama. The left panel is a cool/cold colored painting of an airport/airplane gate extension without a plane. The right panel is a warm colored detail of a table, lamp and chair in what seems to be a hotel room. You feel the delay, the departure, the cold outside as well as the warm but generic and claustrophobic interior and it powerfully creates a very uneasy feeling of lost time and lost love. This painting works so well because it's out there but it is far from exotic and it is not obviously sentimental. It does what Hopper did but with fewer cues. Your newer work is shape based, but not random like Arp. They are panels, swatches of color in shapes that reference cars and even guns, all very masculine. How did you arrive at this series? You have painted cars before and now it seems like you are just doing away with the canvas and the whole car and just sampling elements. Does this narrow or widen the range of responses? In a previous comment, I mentioned the designer sensibility in them, which IKEA could appropriate but that it is only a lead in to an experience at a much higher level.

There’s definitely a shared theme with Hopper in a lot of the earlier work I did, though I never consciously imitated him. I think his work reflects a vision of America seen from a slightly removed position and like him my experience of living abroad informed that perspective. The painting you refer to is meant to reflect the experience of a business traveler and the specificity of the title is ironic in the sense that it could be anywhere. The current work does bear some resemblance to Arp and I hope they have the same evocative quality that his work has. There was a period just before when the paintings were in between. They still functioned like conventional pictures with representational images inside the shapes. At some point I just took the leap. The shapes, color, texture, all, simply became the image.When you mention IKEA, it is true that they come dangerously close at times to just being table tops, but I find that friction interesting and part of the subject matter. In some way it reflects the personal associations we have with the most ubiquitous mass-produced objects.

In order of appearance above: "Bring It On", "Sunday, June 1973", Reliant, A. Coburn's Bernard Shaw & Auguste Rodin, "Huntsville, Alabama", Brougham, "Bypassed Place", Toboggan (2).

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Fairlane Marauder: John Coburn at OPEN SOURCE

There are very few things that will get me out of my cozy home on a frigid, dark winter night, especially to drive out, over and down to Brooklyn, but I have been following John Coburn's work for a couple years and wanted to be at his opening this past Saturday night.

His new solo show, Fairlane Marauder, is on view at OPEN SOURCE until February 3. The 14 works in the show have car name titles, which they loosely reference. All the pieces are made from medium-density fibreboard (MDF) and are cut, bevelled and meticulously painted so they have a very machined look and yet they are really the result of John's patient labor and detailing skills. When you find out (I had to be told by him) that all the wood grains are hand painted patterns you realize that nothing in Fairlane Marauder is simple or superficial.

Although the car references are pronounced, the works also allude to weaponry, shields and electric guitars and even conjure up camper table/school desk tops and outline things that don't yet exist. Their conclusive raison d'être, however, is as art. This is their strength: you approach them as functional objects and your mind spends a couple minutes trying to figure out what they could be and then you simply relax and enjoy them for what they are...really cool shapes and beautiful objects with layers of meaning. They are a post-consumer materialism and take what Arp was trying to do to another level by laying the bait of practical possibilities.

I love these pieces and I love where they came from. I saw their ancestors a couple years ago and I felt uncomfortable because I thought they wanted to be something else, like this series. I visited John's studio in Jersey City not too long after first meeting him. We spent some hours discussing art (his knowledge much deeper and broader than mine) and I looked at his work. He was definitely coming from one place and moving towards another; and by this I mean with styles, materials and ideas. This is what interested me most, that he has a strong steady current. A lot of artists I know literally throw things on the wall to see what sticks or do more of the same, but just another series. John's approach, by contrast, is much more purposeful and intelligent. He is looking for something, which is why I periodically spy over his shoulder, because it is the kind of discovery that only true, thinking artists make possible.

When I asked John the "What next?" question, he carefully did not offer an answer, not because he did not have an idea of what he is going to do, he simply needs to wait and see what evolves.

At this point in this writing, I looked to John's catalogue of the show to see what I could glean and then I realized it is best to simply post his introduction:
John Coburn

The force of habit has a heavy hand in the making of things. Vestiges of a previous practice may persist despite its obsolescence. Hence when carriage makers turned to making automobiles, carriage forms were carried over which no longer served a purpose, but which nonetheless seemed necessary symbolically. Something similar occurred after World War II when Detroit retooled for peacetime. The powerful steel shapes crafted in the production of bombers, tanks and fighter planes found their way into fenders, Dagmars (artillery shaped bumpers) and the grille work of newly designed automobiles. By the 1960s and early 1970s these forms remained a latent specter which undergirded the formal and symbolic language of car design (much like the Military Industrial Complex had become a permanent feature of the American economy). There was a conflict though between these vestigial images and the new suburban idyll the automobile had spawned; one was martial, the other domestic.

The title for this series of works refers to that hybrid of contradictory symbols using a couple of the evocative names given to cars at that time. But the origin of some of the formal content is of a more personal sort as well: that I associate my first strong aesthetic experience while growing up with my father's '67 Dodge Coronet Station Wagon. Shiny black, it had a red vinyl interior and a wide, flat hood that seemed to lock every turn in sights. The reach of its sinewy fender had a slight planar lift as it passed the backseat passenger door. And the impressive presence of this family car coincided with my earliest art-making activity.

These works also incorporate procedures from decorative and sign painting. They evoke the language of the blazon, those heraldic images which signal rank and belonging in a group or participation in great events and command positions in rooms beyond the eye-level read of conventional pictures. Others reference the shapes, finish and styling of electric guitars with their unusual pick guard forms - and hang aloft as well, to be ogled in guitar stores or themed burger joints. Finally, this work may also be seen against a backdrop of Modernist art, such a Jean Arp's evocative yet abstract wooden silhouette pieces and the cubist collage of Braque and Picasso, which employed the faux-bois techniques of the decorator, as well as some early modern American Art, specifically that of Stuart Davis with its celebration of the machine aesthetic. There is a thread connecting these diverse references which extends beyond my personal associations with them. It is my intention that the totality of these combine in a condition which only poetry allows; the ambiguous cohabitation of many in a singular resonance.

In order of appearance above: Pinto, Marquis, Falcon, Mark, Futura.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Art + Spa

Lisa Tannenbaum studied Architecture and Art History and now she is a Spa Architecture Design Consultant based in New York City. We met up several months ago at a special event hosted by the Foundation Center for not-for-profit arts organizations and again recently at the Yale Club to discuss each others pursuits and efforts. This email interview is a follow up to our conversation.

I once wrote that in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Arthur C. Clarke gave us detailed and complex visual experiences directly, without graphic stimuli. Your background is in architecture and art history but now you are focusing on spa culture with a historical approach and an academic understanding and applying this knowledge as a consultant. Do you think that the well being from therapeutic spas is simply a direct approach to our core through our bodies, which art approaches indirectly or do you think the former is purely corporeal and the latter mainly cerebral?

Drew, your questions are similar to my research questions. This one in particular addresses a central theme I am exploring in my academic work at the moment: the connection between art and spa. For me, the experience of great art, in the Kantian sense, is one of meditation. When we encounter art, we contemplate it, stare at it, and our mind goes blank fixated on the fascination of this human creation. What does the gallery of a museum look like when filled with people? What are they doing? People are quiet, still, gaze fixed off in the distance at a point, from time to time moving in a progression, individuals in a large group all engaged in a collective experience while internally meditative. I describe this typical scene at a painting gallery in the Met or MoMA because for me it is identical to the experience of a thermal spa. So the answer to your question is that they are an identity, and I think that art and spa should both approach the corporeal core and stimulate the mind in a way that is relaxing and renewing to the body, mind and spirit. Unfortunately, today in our NYC culture, the experience of art is usually in a jam packed tourist filled blockbuster show, and the experience of spa is not at all what it could be in terms of incorporating great art and design. This is an area where I would like to have an impact on the field.

I want to ask this first question a different way. Many artists, especially the modernists such as Mondrian and Brancusi and the minimalists such as Tony Smith and Carl Andre (his Equivalent VIII pictured left) use symmetry of form and there is something visually "right" about this. We feel aligned by the order but we may still be physically unbalanced. If we are reacting to certain art because it creates this sensation but does not actually align us, isn't it logical that we should approach it more directly, through physical means?


Approaching more directly through physical means I think entails a 3-dimensional art object, such as a Tony Smith sculpture. I would not say that a large outdoor sculptural installation makes me feel balanced, rather it shows the tenuousness of balance and how teetering on axes can create motion. There is a kinetic sculpture (
Two Planes Vertical–Horizontal II by George Warren Rickey) at Yale's Pierson College Courtyard that is really a metal flag pole with a rectangular metal flag that moves with the wind, or when exuberant college students push it. The piece is interactive and may serve to balance us by receiving and releasing extra energy in the form of wind or student power. It illustrates the Vedic principles of Shiva and Shakti, destruction and creation, stability and motion. The pole represents Shiva, stillness, and the moving part represents Shakti, movement, and together represent the balance of the universe.

You have traveled around the world and seen various spas. Describe the prevailing visual aesthetic. Is the overall affect of relaxation most dependent on the physical/architectural design/layout or is it more about natural finishes or are there objects and images around these places such as sculptures and paintings that are key? Or is it a combination of all three?

Spas range from water parks to serene zen gardens. Spas are chameleons and can take any form from their context. The thing I find insincere is the term spa design which is adopted by many architects and interiors firms. There is a bogus line in marketing materials about the meaning of spa as salus per aquam and how spas influenced the environments they created. This was simply a line and they did not even understand what they were saying in my opinion. What I would like to teach, and have created a course about, is sincere analysis of spa layouts and spatial organization throughout history in different times and places, relating spas to their social, historical, urban and cultural contexts for a deep understanding of their design and function. So my answer is layout and location in terms of my interests architecturally and urbanistically at this point, but I think that all three are essential and should be integrated.

I was in the spa town, Carlsbad, this summer (Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic). It was my second time there and this recent trip confirmed my initial impression from 15 years ago, that there is a feeling of "too much". Visually this translates as pretty but kitsch architecture and something regal and opulent. I assume modern spas are toned down but can you perhaps explain if there is a relation to "lifestyles of the rich and famous" that actually contributes to an overall general healthier feeling of someone caught up in that haze or is this simply a facade to command higher prices?

I think you are asking whether the opulence of a spa directly correlates to the impact on health and well-being. From my experience researching thermal baths architecture in Switzerland on a Fulbright grant, what I find most fascinating, is the juxtaposition of high and low culture in one establishment. In a single spa complex, there are usually three parts: the luxury hotel spa, the medical wellness center, and a public bathing establishment. Kitsch aside, I think that the availability of various price points and levels of service offers the spa experience to a broad egalitarian audience, and this is a sensibility I would like to bring to the US. The public facilities are usually simpler, but can be, in the case of Budapest's Gellert and Szcheny baths, grand palaces of the people. It depends on the time and the culture that created it.

Another related question I have you think that people in a more relaxed setting, such as a spa, are more vulnerable to artwork that might be, for lack of a better word, tacky? Do we drop our critical guard when we are happy? I do not want to get into the history or definitions of degenerative art but can you perhaps personally comment on artwork that is disturbing and upsetting but also important? Historically I could point to someone like Goya (who predates the degenerative art label). I cannot imagine Saturn Devouring His Son hanging in a spa lobby and yet it is a very powerful piece.

I disagree. The sculpture of Laocoön and his sons being eaten by serpents was found in the Roman baths. This is certainly a disturbing piece. Sigfried Giedion expressed in 1948 that the way a culture regenerates or relaxes on a daily basis is representative of the level of the civilization. I think it is representative of the decline of our culture that challenging and great art is no longer found in spas. I would like to see and inspire a culture of spas designed around art and as art. This maybe refers to your earlier question about whether spas are designed around an object, based on finishes, or physical layout. Spas built today are more for trends in the $1billion + US industry, so there is little incentive to build them to last with expensive finishes, great art or lasting materials. The layouts are determined by maximum profit income per square foot, and being in business for 30 years would be an extremely long time, so the limited life expectancy also limits the design and construction efforts.

Reviewing your own educational evolution, are you where you are now because of some personal Hegelian progression? Have you reached your personal end of art or are all of your experiences layers that inform each other?

I have always felt like Penelope. I have been talking about these issues for the past ten years, and now people are starting to listen. Perhaps it is a personal choice, or Hegelian progression (or dharmic as I prefer), that I insist on sticking to a topic that seems out there to many, spa history, but in my view of it is central to all human activity. A close friend,
architect Andrew Heid commented about my work, that bathing is like Rem Koolhaas' Harvard study of Shopping. It's the anonymous activity that we all participate in, but isn't the topic of scholarship. Another friend, New York Times reporter Michael Barbaro, said to me people are so into topics like eating, pooping, so why not bathing?

In the history of spas, was practicing art (i.e. painting, dance) part of the experience of relaxation and re-creation? I remember reading a decade ago about a special resort/spa in northern Europe that was only for artists. I think they were mainly performing artists. It would be interesting to see what kind of program they have.

Art is intimately linked with spas. Springs were historically places of inspiration. This is thought to be linked with the release of negative ions from flowing water. It is also about relaxation in general, as well as being places of cultural exchange. European spas are always places of art exhibits, music performances, writers and those seeking to release creative blockages such as Fellini's 81/2 at Montecatini Terme in Tuscany.

So what kind of art do you like most and how do you want to experience it?

I saw Stifters Dinge at the Park Avenue Armory as part of the Lincoln Center Great Performances in December. This to me is exactly what I would like a spa experience to be like. It is a totally engaging and sensory 80-minute performance piece by director Heiner Goebbels. There are three pools that fill with water during the performance and are a reflective surface for lighting and sound effects, as well as catching artificial rain drops beautifully and bubbling up with dry ice at the end. I paid $57 for the ticket and it was more transcendent and relaxing than any equivalently priced spa experience in NY. I would love to walk into a spa and have Stifters Dinge be going on and that is the experience of art + spa.

Thank you for your time.

Thanks to you and the Museum of Peripheral Art.

Coincidentally, the Laocoön and His Sons sculpture appeared again to me today in an offline and unrelated context. I was walking towards the Highline on a frozen Sunday in Chelsea and was keeping my eyes peeled for open galleries. At the front yard of the Jim Kempner Fine Art gallery on West 23rd Street was a small group of unrelated Parisians who had converged to admire Carole Feuerman's Survival of Serena. Typically, I am unimpressed by hyper-realist sculptures but there is something so idealized in her work that you want to believe in it. Survival of Serena is several times "life size" and is basically a bust with arms with half a sculpted inner tube. No matter how how bad you may find its perfection, your skin tingles when you are in its presence. It is so unapologetically sentimental that when I saw it today, one of the coldest days of the year, I was transported back to my childhood, swimming in a warm tidewater Virginia creek on a steamy Fourth of July. The relaxed, classical female swimmers of Feuerman's world are water nymphs and poolside yogis...they seemed irresistibly fitting for today's post. Went I went inside the gallery to read up on Feuerman, I found tear sheets from the October 2009 issue of Sculpture magazine. The cover of that issue of Sculpture (pictured above, left) shows a copy of the Laocoön sculpture (sans serpent). The issue theme reads, Time and History in the Body and Object. Pictured below is Survival of Serena.