Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Iron Man: An Interview with Jay Wholley

by Drew MartinIn the late 1990s my wife was working on a degree at a local college so I decided to take a sculpture class at her school. I was not expecting much out of the course but it sounded interesting as it was an introduction to welding and iron casting. When I studied art at my university, there was not much focus on traditional sculpture so I was eager to learn some technical skills.

I recently found some old 35mm slides of the pictures I took during our iron pour so I had a few of them digitally scanned. The picture above is of fellow students pouring the molten iron into my cast for a stool I designed and made (pictured left).

I first carved the stool from strips of styrofoam and stuck them together with toothpicks and glue. I also made two large entry spouts from foam, which were connected to the bottom ring and four thin foam exhaust vents that rose up off of each corner. All of these needed to be sawed off later, which was a feat because they were also replaced by iron. This model was packed into a cardboard box with over 600 pounds of sand with a binder. The iron was poured onto/into the foam spouts until it came out the exhausts. Iron melts at approximately 2500 °F (1370 °C) so the foam instantly vaporizes and the liquid metal fills the gaps in the sand. My instructor was a little bit skeptical about the piece working because of its thinness and all the routes the iron would need to flow through in a couple seconds but despite a little distortion of all the weight and pressure of the sand on such a fragile foam, it was a great success. Seeing the pictures again brought back fond memories of the class, classmates and especially the professor, Jay Wholley, so I recently reached out to him and asked him for an interview, which we did through email.

A dozen years ago I took your sculpture class, which was highlighted by an iron pour. It was really great because, to begin with, it is part of the geology and the history of that region. You also made us break up old radiators to get our iron source and then we were all part of the process. I was the bot plug guy. [the person who removes the bottom plug from the furnace in order to remove the molten metal]

How often do you do the iron pours now and what do you still like about that process?

We usually do iron pours at Ramapo College once a semester. There are several things I like about the process. I like the idea that in these times of "high tech" I use a low tech, 19th century technology. Iron has only been used in fine art since the late 50's and had, until that time, been considered a base metal - appropriate for bridges and machinery but inappropriate for sculpture. It was kind of subversive in the beginning but like everything in our culture it was co-opted and is now everywhere. It is often used by people more enamored with the process than the art it is supposed to produce.

As I recall, you were originally a steel welder, building bridges. Any particular bridges to note that I may have driven or taken a train over?

The bridges that I worked on were mostly overpasses in the Boston Area - Route 95 on the way to New Hampshire although I did work on the railings on the Mystic bridge out of Boston. I also welded barges standing in the water in Boston Harbor - something only an 18 year old who was low on the evolutionary scale would do.

How did you make that transition from a specialized laborer to full time artist? Was it a frightening move or something you were 100% sure about?

I never intended to be a welder (as a profession) but rather did it summers and when I dropped out of school to make money. The company that I worked for did all the horrible jobs that the union refused. Once I was back in college I was completely committed to becoming an artist and knew that I would do anything that I had to do to support myself. After I left college I did the heavy lifting and installations for a large gallery in NY.

I remember you wanted to get a fairly large piece made in bronze at the time. Did that ever get realized? I think you said the cost of casting bronze was $60/lb.

Although I didn't get that particular piece realized (you have a good memory), I did get a commission for a large scale bronze piece from the Atlantic Foundation which is at Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton, NJ and called "La Casa De Bernada Alba." I made the pattern and all of the fabrication and the casting was done by the Johnson Atelier. The cost would have worked out to about what you remembered.

In your class you also taught us welding and we had some more conceptual assignments. How has your own work changed since then...have you become more conceptual?

I feel that there have always been conceptual underpinnings or at the least "real world" associations in my work - even the work that overtly seems to be the most abstract. I am currently working on a series of large iron hats based on the hats in Piero della Francesca's paintings from the early Renaissance.

Have students changed over the years? Are certain expressions lost or revived...or is there a new vision?

That is a tough question. Are they more creative - no, more imaginative - no, but the vision has definitely changed. It could not help but do so as the culture changes. Students now seem to be more conservative and career oriented. Fortunately, there always seem to be a few iconoclasts ready to challenge me and everything else.

I remember you telling me I should drink milk after welding galvanized steel because it absorbed metal from the blood. Welding and casting both have immediate and long term dangers. Can you talk a bit about living with those dangers as an artist?

I am a lot more aware of the dangers now than I was years ago. I was always concerned with the safety of my students; less so with myself. Over time, as I have seen more accidents with friends of mine, I have become more cautious and I now practice what I preach and I hope that I will live a long and happy life doing what I love - making art using the processes of welding and casting. The College is also aware of the dangers in these areas and has made sure that everything that I do complies with industry safety standards. We have air handlers fans, etc. in the welding studio and the bronze casting furnace and burn-out kiln have high pressure, low pressure gauges on the gas lines as well fire-eye switches and over temperature controls.

Can you share an image of your recent and or favorite work with us and tell us a little bit about it?

I mentioned before the Piero "hats" but these are just out of the oven, so to speak, so I have attached one of my iron cubes called "Lament for Bobby Sands" which I cast at the Keane foundry in Houston, Texas. The piece is 3' square and weighs one and a half tons. I have been working on the cube series for over 12 years. I began making them in response to minimalism and Tony Smith's piece called "Die." Whereas he attempted to take all reference out of his piece I did the opposite with both process and connotation. The process mimics earth processes in the center of the Earth, or at least what geophysicists believe happens there. Plate shift gaps or "molds" are created and iron rushes in filling the void. This process is not dissimilar to what happens in a mold. I subvert the more normal casting processes to create fissures and occlusions in the surface. I have broken and abraded the surfaces to mimic what happens to iron if it is put back into the earth. The iron will disintegrate differentially due to how the crystalline structure sets up as it cools. This seems to be different in most pieces (at least with the processes that I use). The cube is also the building block of civilizations. I will leave it at that for now.

Thank you for your time.

Jay's mention of Piero della Francesca reminded me of a comment he made during our class. As I recall, a student had asked him who his favorite painter was and he offered Piero. He said he liked him because his paintings were so sculptural. Since that comment I have always tried to appreciate how a sculptor, writer or filmmaker might see a painting, and for that matter, how a sculptor might have a certain reading of books, or how a painter would appreciate a film differently than a writer.

Apparently iron pours have quite a draw on certain characters. If I remember correctly, Jay and some students even went to Estonia for one and during our own iron pour, the sculptor George Segal (1924-2000) pulled up in a car and had a look. I read up on him yesterday and realized what an interesting person he was. From the 1950s on, he lived on a chicken farm in New Jersey where he hosted parties for the New York art world, which inspired the painter Allan Kaprow to coin the phrase "Happening." I first saw his work at the NY Port Authority Bus Terminal as a kid: his ghostly sculptures were simply part of the landscape for me. What is fascinating about them is the way they play on the term "cast" as his pieces were originally made with the gauze and plaster materials used for making casts on broken limbs. The use of these materials makes the process both medical and caring but the final pieces now read to me as something very painful about the human condition...that we are all perhaps broken inside and need to be in a cast until we heal.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Pro Noun

by Drew Martin

If you ask me what a noun is, the young school boy in me will eagerly tell you it is a person, place or thing. Those options are offered by "or" and they set our minds wandering: Marie Skłodowska-Curie, Katmandu, fire hydrant. Swap that "or" with "and" and the definition becomes encapsulated: Marie Skłodowska-Curie, Warsaw-Paris, Radon-Polonium. Maybe this is a good way to think of names. I had the privilege to name my three children and always considered the "and" factor.

My oldest child, Olympia, has a lot of name references to the arts and literature, most obviously Greek mythology. She went on a class trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art last week. Upon returning, I asked her what her favorite thing was and she said Perseus with the Head of Medusa by Canova. It was one of those moments of relief, pride, joy in parenthood. My wife has read her hours of Greek mythology so she knew the story well and even questioned why he is looking at her head, but maybe that is a play on the marble stone of the sculpture itself, which I had never thought about until then. It also made me think a lot about "place" and placement. I wonder if Olympia would have considered it as much if Perseus had been in his original location, up above the entrance lobby of the Met.

Coincidentally, I had watched a documentary of the Met only a few days prior, which was about Philippe de Montebello's enduring role as the Museum's director. The piece included Montebello's explanation of the move of Perseus from the entrance lobby to the Carroll and Milton Petrie European Sculpture Court. In the original place, Perseus was highlighted but decorative but in the sculpture court it regained its presence as a stand-alone masterful sculpture.

This reminded me of Jerome Klapka Jerome's Three Men on the Bummel (1900), a hilarious and fresh story of a bicycle trip with his friends through Germany's Black Forest. In one part, he is actually in Prague and he describes a very peculiar event.

If you have been to Prague, you will know that the grandest street is Václavské Náměstí (Wenceslas Square). At the top, is the Wenceslas Monument with a bronze statue of the mounted saint by the Czech sculptor Josef Václav Myslbek. The piece took Myslbek over twenty years to complete and is one of the most popular symbols of Prague, as well as one of its most common default meeting places. Jerome passed through Prague during a time when several full-size wooden mock-ups of the monument were made and placed around the city so the artist, commissioners and citizens could decide where it fit best.

One note on the word bummel. When asked by one of the characters to translate the word, Jerome as narrator replies:

"A 'Bummel'," I explained, "I should describe as a journey, long or short, without an end; the only thing regulating it being the necessity of getting back within a given time to the point from which one started. Sometimes it is through busy streets, and sometimes through the fields and lanes; sometimes we can be spared for a few hours, and sometimes for a few days. But long or short, but here or there, our thoughts are ever on the running of the sand. We nod and smile to many as we pass; with some we stop and talk awhile; and with a few we walk a little way. We have been much interested, and often a little tired. But on the whole we have had a pleasant time, and are sorry when it's over."

Friday, April 23, 2010

An Artist's Artist

by Drew MartinI have always liked the idea of the artist's artist, the actor's actor or the writer's writer, etc. This person might not have a very big mainstream audience or enjoy the financial benefits of success in his or her field but the status is maintained by the sheer respect and sometimes awe from his or her peers. He or she pursues obscure themes and projects that can be far from the marketplace.

When Prague was still a mysterious and roguish place, there roamed the artist Petr Vaněček (I think that was his last name). One night he invited me to his attic flat. As a gift, I brought with me some old black and white photographs of a great fire that had engulfed parts of Prague from what appeared to be the first half of the 20th century. He examined them for a long time, as if he was remembering this event well before his birth. His flat was Bohemian in every regard. His toilet, for example, had a bucket next to it and instructions above it of how one needed to fill it with water and empty it into the toilet in order to flush. We sat in two arm chairs: his had a broken armrest, which he casually lifted and slid toward me, explaining that it effortlessly detached so he could easily and passionately advance on a young women who might be sitting in my spot. When I acknowledged his maneuver, he returned the armrest and leaned back, happy with himself. He was in rare form that night.

Well after midnight, we left his flat and wandered the streets, stopping off at various clubs. As we walked, he told me that during communism, young women would lean out their windows and over their balconies and call down to him (or any other man they fancied). If such a meeting advanced, the woman would toss down her apartment key and he would ascend. The night ended as it might with Fellini: the morning sun spilled its light over the shadows of the evening and the sobering hustle of the new day sent the night creatures back to their hiding spots. I recall Petr pointing to a woman in a new car who had stopped at a traffic light next to us. He said it was the daughter of Jan Saudek, the famous Czech photographer. At that spot we went our ways and I never saw him again.

I do not remember much of Petr's work, only that he was that kind of mythical artist's artist. The one thing I have fond memories of, however, (I visited him during various stages of it) was his obsessive painting of triangles on the walls of the café Velryba (Whale), which was just opening at that time in the early 1990s. Recently, I heard that some people thought it was my own creation (as I was also doing some artwork for clubs and cafés) but I could never be that genuinely manic. Now it comes off as simply decorative but when he was consumed with it, it was more like Friedensreich Hundertwasser's The Hamburg Line - The Growing Red Sea, which was the endless line he set out to draw with Bazon Brock and Harald Schult at Lerchenfeld Art Institute in Hamburg in 1959. After performing the endless line, he was asked to leave his post. The line was ten miles long and took two days and nights to make. Petr's triangles also remind me of Hundertwasser's dislike of the straight line:

The straight line is ungodly

The straight line leads to the downfall of humanity

Years after our evening, I tried to visit Petr but he had been kicked out of his flat. In the stairwell of that building, I met a nice, clean young couple with a baby girl who told me this news and gave me quite a look of guilt by association. I don't know what happened to Petr but I think there is part of him still roaming those streets at night.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Touch Screen

by Drew MartinWe never had Atari or Intellivision or any of the first home computers, which the early adopters of the computer generation embraced. We had a lot of peaceful silence in our house - occasionally the television would be awoken - and yet, my brother and I were probably some of the first kids to play games on a computer.

My father was (and still is) a nuclear physicist. On the weekends he would take us to his laboratory to "change samples" (food, water and other items checked for their level of radioactivity). Some of the computers were massive units and the programs ran on reels of punched tape. There were lots of things to do at the lab: run up and down dark hallways, photocopy our hands, watch dry ice boil-over in water and dip things (flowers and rubber tubing) in liquid nitrogen and shatter them like glass on the floor. The computer we played on was pre-mouse, pre-computer graphics. The games were word adventures like the original version of Dungeons and Dragons:

Computer: You've entered a room and there is a hissing sound. What do you want to do?

Player: Light a torch
(thinking it is a snake)

Computer: The hissing sound was an open gas valve. You have blown yourself up. Start a new game?

I longed for something like a mouse or joystick and images: a graphical user interface. I used to randomly place letters and numbers on the screen and navigate my cursor around them (with the up, down, left, right arrows) like an obstacle course, but I was insatiable.

Years later, in the dawn of the 1980's, I took a middle school computer class and learned the basics of programming. Eager to make some kind of interactive graphic, I created a palm/hand out of rows of Xs and I wrote a program that asked ten specific and personal questions; date of birth, favorite color etc. The program instructed the user to place his or her palm on the hand on the screen (as if there was some kind of scanning or computer palm reading involved) and then answer the questions. After all of this was done, a fortune was told to the user such as: you will marry and have lots of children...you will see the world...you will live a long life...etc.

Looking back on this for the first time in almost 30 years, I see it was quite an insightful project for a tween. Ironically, as computer graphics evolved, I became less interested in the visual nature of images and more consumed by the literary abstractions and concepts behind them.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

One Light Year

Today is the one year anniversary of The Museum of Peripheral Art entering the blogosphere. Before this blog there was a website for a year, museumofperipheralart.org, which was simply a rotation of images of early projects and sculptures. The first picture and the hallmark image was of Petina (pictured above), which is a sculpture I have and a false idol, I still worship, adore, cherish etc... 'She' was replaced with the concentric orange rings when the Museum ventured beyond objects. I created them to represent pulsating and emitting media and peripheral layers and ripples.

Museumofperipheralart.org was
purposefully vague and mysterious about the existence and pursuits of the Museum. I did not renew that site and tried to let everything reside peripherally for another year or so on various sites such as Flickr but that was too scattered. At the same time I was writing art articles independent of The Museum of Peripheral Art. The blog was a wonderful calling, in which all the projects and writings came together and made sense of each other. Including this page, there have been 83 postings to date.

On April 20, 2009 I had two postings: both were 'reprints' of articles published in Umelec magazine:

Synesthetic Interpretations: Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick

Byproducts of Art: An Interview with Luis Camnitzer

The latter was well received by the magazine, while the former was not fully appreciated and said to be too dated...which is true, I wrote it almost forty years after 2001: A Space Odyssey was published and released...but one thing I never wanted to be is too timely or trendy. That being said, the article was finally published around the time of Arthur C. Clarke's death, which I feel was an appropriate in memoriam. One thing lost in translation to the blog was the layout I established for
the magazine article, which references the Kubrick's monoliths (quite different than Clarke's). The original title was Writing and Directing Sculpture.

Though I like and miss the scrutiny of editors and working closely with proof readers, I most certainly prefer the freedom of availability of this blog. So I apologize if my writing is not always as tight as it should be. I consider this a diary of my art and media thoughts and hope it jostles some ideas in those who serendipitously happen upon its postings.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Virus is a Language

by Drew Martin

The writer, William S. Burroughs, once remarked and the performance artist, Laurie Anderson, once reverbally sang...

Language is a virus
from outer space

If my writings ever come across as formulated, it is simply my southpaw reflex to invert the established proposition. So my belated response to Mr. Burroughs and Ms. Anderson is...

A virus is a language

(Before we get started, I would like to point out that virus means poison in Latin)

One of the most fascinating, direct and accurate means of communication is illness. Although the impressionists, expressionists and action painters attempted to transfer the energy of the moment and within themselves to the painting/viewer, I think it would be hard to take ourselves seriously if we said we were so moved by a sunny Van Gogh painting that we felt like running through his golden fields. It's a lovely notion but I have never seen anyone spinning before the work of the desperate Dutchman like Julie Andrews in the start of The Sound of Music. At best we may stare with admiration over the use of color and creative genius but we are indeed grounded and still quite removed.

Blues music is another runner-up: It simply bleeds emotions but we are still immune to the hard-knock life behind the lyrics. At the end of a song we have not lost our jobs and loved ones (assuming we had these at the beginning). A disease, however, is an unmediated feeling of dis-ease. If you have the viral illness Mononucleosis you could write a book, screenplay or song about what you are going through but if you really want someone to share that experience, all you would need to do is kiss him or her. Having had "Mono," I would not recommend this and obviously the more serious the disease, the less one would even consider such an action.

Writing this, I remember a scene from a Star Trek film, in which a monument is discovered on some far-off planet. It emits signals which recreate the sensation of the event it marks for the person standing before it. Turn up your noses as you may at the science fiction genre, but that's quite a thoughtful and poetic improvement over a bronze man on a horse commemorating i.e. the Civil War and the slain.

A disease is a bundle of information that sets off an array of signals within the host. A body heats us, reddens, aches. Pain can jam all thoughts but, on the other hand, a fatigued and bedridden person may become philosophically Proustian. A bacterial infection is a primordial invasion, while a virus is a futuristic alien abduction. The former is like mold blooming in your basement and the latter is like a UFO landing on your roof. There is something entirely unattractive about yeasty growths and asexual reproduction. It is even a bit offensive that nature would dare suggest that men and women are unnecessary for life to continue. But a virus and larger parasites are something to write home about: their lives are beyond our wildest dreams. If this were a bar scene, bacteria is the sweaty drunk guy in the corner while the virus is the woman in the red dress dancing on the counter.

I always loved the illustrations of viruses. They look like lunar landing modules. My 1969 World Book Encyclopedia explains that a virus directs the life processes of a cell so more viruses are formed and set free to attack other cells. It was quite a discovery in 1898, when Dutch botanist Martinus Willem Beijerinck recognized that something much smaller that bacteria could cause disease.

The single cell parasite Toxoplasma gondii, which is found in cat feces and is quite a serious threat to pregnant women, is a villain with multiple personalities. Toxoplasma gondii makes rodents suicidally advance on their feline predators. In humans, it makes women more affectionate and men more stand-offish. In some nations, Taxoplasma gondii is in more than a third of the population and it sits in the brain of the hosts after being directly or indirectly transferred from cat feces.

If parasites can manipulate our thoughts, even to the extent of directing us towards a suicide (and some do in humans), it is easy to entertain anything and everything they are capable of. Are parasites capable of inducing creativity or depression? Might the kiss of a homewrecker be loaded with a parasite inclined for divorce? Could a mellow virus turn the Taliban into free-loving hippies? Sometimes knowing the root of misconduct provides an excuse for the actions but I think that knowing something foreign might be behind your thoughts, even whether it is true or not, gives you a lot of control.

One of the larger paintings I did in college during a brief period as a painter was a wide field of red blood cells using the picture here. In the center of the original photograph is malaria attacking red blood cells. In my painting, I replaced the malaria with the Barberini Faun statue. It was quite a lustful piece by default.

The sculpture is a bit of an enigma. It was either carved by an unknown Hellenistic sculptor in the late third century BCE or is a Roman copy of high quality. The statue was found in the 1620s and was heavily damaged because it was believed to have been hurled in defense upon the invading Goths during the siege of Rome in 537.

I do not remember my message in the painting. In that time when AIDS was on everyone's minds, it was probably an expression of the timeless relationship between lust and disease. The Barberini Faun represented a virus. While diseases are both communicative and communicable they are something that we humans are quite silent about because illness is instinctively and historically shunned. The natural reaction is to defend yourself from the unknown. In some cases the reaction is so strong that a person may even scream out when he or she sees someone diseased or when touched by someone sick.

Fortunately, this is changing as the Internet is freeing up information and providing forums for discussion. Media, for the most part, has shed light on diseases, whether it is an encyclopedic explanation or if it appeals to our sympathy, such as David Lynch's The Elephant Man.

Friday, April 9, 2010

The Boy Who Cried Bolf

by Drew Martin

Last summer I had the privilege of meeting the painter Josef Bolf in his native Czech Republic. We both had work in a group show at the Califia Gallery in the tiny village of Horažďovice in southwestern Bohemia. The opening spilled over into a Czech pub where we spoke for some time. Last night was the opening of Josef's first US solo show, The Wolf, at the Ana Cristea Gallery in Chelsea. The show runs through May 8th, 2010.

Born in 1971, Josef is two years younger than I am, which means a lot of things. I arrived in Prague in the winter of 1992 (and lived in the country until 1997) so we both came of age on his turf in that golden time between the end of communism and full-throttle capitalism/tourism. On one of David Černý's visits to New York a few years ago, the popular Czech artist quipped to me that his new girlfriend at the time was so young that she didn't understand any of his Russian jokes: the knowledge of the forced language and the reality of the Soviet grip on the former Czechoslovakia is simply lost on the younger generation.

Josef, like Černý (four years his senior), is the right age to comprehend that past and express it in the present, to a very different world. Josef does so with his painted emotional landscapes that dip into his own childhood and memories of the darker side of communism, which, on paper, was quite embracing of kid culture. Cartoons, for example, were not violent tumbles but sweet, televised bedtime stories, introduced by soft-voiced women who verbally tucked in the nation's children each night.

When I was introduced to Josef's work less than a year ago, I had an immediate repulsion from it...the same way I am super-sensitive to certain chemicals in the air of a Czech factory town I lived in for three years. His style embodied a lot of things I left behind, which included a failed marriage, a stark realism that could only be read as fatalistic for an America-reared optimist, hard-dark winters, heavy pollution and a Czech saying that still reverberates in my head like a dark-side mantra..."I must only die."

I saw Josef's work as gloomy and inescapably Eastern European but then he said something to me over a pilsner beer that washed away all of my experiential grime. He started telling me about the influence of The Lord of the Flies on his paintings, and with that everything was illuminated. This masterpiece by William Golding always piques my interest...not only because of the riveting story but also because of how differently the movie version was supposedly received by the British and the French. The British audience took the wild and murderous actions of the ungoverned youths as a matter of fact, while the French audience recoiled. The former perceived children as little beasties who need to be forced into proper people, while the latter focused on the innocence of children until they are "adulterated" by society's vices. Josef seems to naturally and seamlessly combine the two mindsets.

The children in Josef's paintings inhabit bleak Soviet era landscapes that they have unfortunately inherited. At the same time they seem wild in the absence of nurturing parents. One of my first memories of Czech kids was the single key they wore around their necks on a shoestring. In America that would symbolize a latch key kid with working parents but in the former Czechoslovakia is was simply the first key they needed to get into their apartment buildings, where they were most likely greeted by mothers who would offer them tea or juice and snacks. Seeing the key always made me smile because I saw the kids as carefree but loved.

Josef's Prague is immediately recognizable but not with hilltop castles, meandering old town streets or Charles Bridge. His Prague pictures the block houses of the outskirts and overconstructed metro stations. It is his treatment of concrete surfaces and how he applies a thin patch of white paint to create a dirty but powerful fluorescent light that sends me back to his capital city.

Golding's Lord of the Flies is a quick demise that emphasizes the fragility of civilization. Josef's state is a bit more complicated and burdening. His neglect is a systematic one, which is where I appreciate him most because it comes from his first twenty years of witnessing a total decline and nearly another two decades pondering it. The Cold-War government of Eastern Europe created a science fiction-like landscape: big, bold gestures in massive architecture and efficient tentacles of public transportation. There was also a very clear view of the ecological impact.

This a theme wonderfully explored in Krzysztof Kieslowski's 1976 film, Blizna (The Scar) about the cancerous spread of a factory town into the Polish countryside. Another film that comes to mind is the 1966 Czech film, Konec Srpna v Hotelu Ozon, (End of August at the the Hotel Ozone) directed by Jan Schmidt from a screenplay by Pavel Juracek. The film is set in Czechoslovakia, decades after a nuclear holocaust in a world devoid of men. A lone band of feral young women on horseback roam the forests of Europe in hopes of finding mates to procreate. The film is as bad as it sounds but what I loved about it, and what I think might be lost on the non-Czech viewer of Josef's paintings, is what the absence of civilization actually means to a Czech. The pragmatic American prepares for apocalyptic storms with provisions: batteries, canned food, maybe even a gun for some reason. We seem to secretly want a return to the virgin forests of the Americas.

What we find in the film along with the savage young women is the Hotel Ozone, inhabited by one lovely old Czech man. He has spent his time savoring his books, listening to his phonograph and drinking fresh milk. Czechs have an old European culture that historically promoted art, music, literature and the sciences. The man at the Hotel Ozone is eventually killed over his phonograph. This is the tragedy of Josef's paintings...it's not a lost in the wilderness lack of humanity but an established and nurturing culture that is lost to bleakness and a post-human "aesthetic."

Josef looked great in New York - wearing a neatly pressed shirt at his opening and displaying a touch of nervousness that simply read as an upbeat excitement inherent to New Yorkers. His work could be viewed as an emotional downer but I like to take it all in the stride of the great Czech diplomat, philanthropist and traveler, Vojta Náprstek, extending himself for others. Josef brings us artifacts from a vanished race he finds during travels deep inside himself.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

This Is Not A Door

by Drew Martin

Doors have a lot of meaning in our culture. They may represent acceptance or rejection. To have your foot in the door promises opportunity and to have an open door policy means there is fairness and open mindedness. Nothing is more deflating than to have someone close a door in your face, while behind door #... on Let's Make a Deal became synonymous with surprise and gambled choices.

In The Raven, Edgar Allan Poe turned a door into an instrument of suspense, which has been the portal of murderers and monsters in books and especially movies ever since:

While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
`'Tis some visitor,' I muttered, `tapping at my chamber door -
Only this, and nothing more.'

In Paint in Black, by The Rolling Stones, Mick Jagger belts "I see a red door and I want it painted black." It is a song about death, loss and depression. Red doors symbolized prostitution. In My Room by the Beach Boys references the door in quite a different tone: In this world I lock out all my worries and my fears...

Sometimes the enthusiasm of certain holidays, like this recent cheerful blast of Easter, can make you want to retreat to your room, pull down the blinds and shut the door: blocking out all the commercial and religious bombardment that might catch one off guard coming out of the introverted comfort of a winter hibernation.

That very door, which represents safety and privacy, may also be one of the most loaded Christian objects in your house. The door to note is the Cross & Bible door. This door dominates my own home but not because of devotion: it was simply the default door purchased by workers from Home Depot. The Cross & Bible door was first created in America in the early 1700's when the frame and panel door became popular. There is a good reason for the construction; the floating panels inside the vertical stiles and the horizontal rails minimize the swelling and shrinking of the total door. The design of the cross and bible, however, is entirely symbolic.

The upper portion of the door bears the cross, while the lower portion represents an open bible, with each panel symbolizing the sides of the open book. The door is sometimes called the Christian door and its creation is a now part of folklore. The version that is the most poetic is that the Freemasons constructed and used them to mark 'safe' houses for the immigrating and persecuted Christians.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

An Accidental Artist

by Drew Martin

CONGRATULATIONS! is a project I did today as a final farewell to a shady character, Ted Gowkialo. He really does exist and is a bit of a crook. In my case, he broke his contract and took off with a $1,700 down payment for cabinet work. This was actually a few years ago and since then I was able to recover $1,200 but the balance is lost. When I recently started looking into this again, naively hoping he would make good on his promise to eventually pay me, I found out that he owes a lot of people money, including his landlord, who told me to "Join the club!"

I am not a litigious person and I did not want to make a big deal out of it because I hate to think about money so I decided to settle it on my own terms as an artist. I turned the $500 difference into the Museum of Peripheral Art's first award and retroactive grant. I had previously conceived of a WANTED poster so I had already drawn a police sketch of Gowkialo but I gave him a look of moral regret: as if I was picturing him how I hoped he would look when thinking about what he had done. I created two versions of the poster: one in English and one in Polish (his diaspora) but I never put them up. When I recently changed the idea into a grant, I kept the WANTED look because I hoped it would have the same immediate impact with those connotations, especially since many people are looking for him to pay up.

The written message is, however, very different. It reads:


Ted Gowkialo is the recipient of this year's prestigious $500 Foxsly Award for his contributions to minimal art. Ted's piece "The Invisible Cabinets" was a set of invisible kitchen cabinets he made using vanishing materials.

This afternoon, I traveled on several trains to reach his neighborhood two hours away. I put 30 fliers up on trees and posts as well as on the doors of his apartment building. This was not a vengeful or threatening piece: I did not blow the smoke off my staple gun when I finished. It is a piece about closure and forgiving. I could even stretch it and say it is a piece about Easter: a wayward carpenter and the possibility of miracles.