Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Origin of a Series

by Drew Martin

I am a bit superstitious: I do not walk under ladders, I will often go out of my way to scoot around a black cat if it threatens to cross my path during a morning run and so as to not end this month with 13 articles, I will include this addendum to yesterday's post about the Danish movie, Prag.

There is a scene in the film where the character Alena, played by Jana Plodková, is singing in a club. The melody is all too familiar but the Czech words seem regional. The song is from Elvis Presley's Love Me Tender. The Czech version, Pár havraních copánků, took on a life of its own when the legendary Czech swooner, Karel Gott, recorded it in 1964. The lyrics were adapted by Zbyněk Vavřín and are completely unrelated...Love Me Tender becomes A Pair of Jet-Black Ponytails and the first line is, A pair of jet-black ponytails and your quiet laughter.

What follows, are words that might as well be from an old Slavic folk song but 1956-Presley is the source. This scene and the "where have I heard that before" moment reminded me of a wonderful Czech documentary I saw in the 1990's, from 1965, called Londýnský Autobus (The London Bus) by Vladimir Sís.
It documents the story of an Englishman, a double-decker London bus driver on holiday, who finds himself in a Czech pub where he joins some merry souls in singing to the melody of Beer Barrel Polka, also known as Roll Out the Barrel. The song became famous around the world in 1939 after reaching # 1 on the Hit Parade when it was sung by Will Glahé with the lyrics by Lew Brown and Wladimir Timm.

During WWII it became a hit in many other countries, each assuming its origin. This sparked many unfortunate bets. Even the Foreign Minister of Germany, Dietrich Genscher, claimed it was German.

In the documentary, the confident Brit wages that if the song is not an English original he will bring his double-decker bus to Prague. He soon learns it is indeed a Czech song and meets Jaromír Vejvoda, who composed it in 1927. Eduard Ingriš, wrote the first arrangement of the piece when Vejvoda asked him to clean it up and Václav Zeman, was the person who wrote text for it in 1934.

It would make sense that the song was Czech; the Polka originated there (not Poland) in the mid 1800s. The title of Zeman's version was Škoda lásky ("Wasted Love" - though directly translates as "The Pity of Love").

The best part of what followed was how much pleasure the Englishman took in losing and how good he was on his word. Back in England, he loaded the double-decker bus with elderly friends, ferried it to France and then drove it through France and Germany and into Bohemia. The documentary shows the busload of revelers en route to Prague and back, singing the whole way.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Something is Rotten in the State of Denmark...and the Czech Republic

by Drew Martin
Prag is a 2006 Danish film, that I liked because the dialogue is in Danish, English and Czech, but otherwise it is a miserable film. I expect too much from European films: I want them to be better than the average American film, but Prag has a lot of common pitfalls. For one, Prague and Czechs are super-stereotyped. The city is shown as either a beautiful backdrop or it is simply drab and bleak. Czechs are, for the most part, portrayed as cold, rude and weird. But the coldest people in the film, are the Danish couple, Christoffer and Maja, who spend most of the time saying horrible, inexcusable things to each other when they visit the city to retrieve the corpse of Christoffer's late father, who has been absent from this 43 year old's life for the past three decades.

Perhaps the caustic dialogue tries to show that they are human, but they are unlikable, unchanging individuals. There is an inherent, unscripted Danish elitism, that this husband and wife of 14 years are somehow superior to the Czechs. They are certainly a handsome couple, though I could now forget John Currin's off-mark comment about his painting "The Danes," to paraphrase his reason for naming it that: Not good looking enough to be Swedes.

The "
shocking" theme of homosexuality is not properly explored here with any insight or respect but the topic is kept in a shameful (and in one scene, laughable) state. It serves too easily in the plot for why Christoffer's father left him as a boy, just as the infidelity of Maja too swiftly prompts Christoffer to repeat his father's flight, leaving behind his own adolescent son, in Denmark. The only redeeming character in the film is the fresh-faced and golden Alena, played by Jana Plodková. She was the housemaid of the elder Dane, with whom she lived, along with her daughter, as a facade to his gay world, which involved not only his lover (the lawyer overseeing the details of sending the body back to Denmark, which ends up in Nairobi) but also his failed business of a dating service for older gay men.

Alena is the warmth and life of the film, casted well with
Plodková. She is only shown in interiors; the father's sunlit house in the woods (where her pictures mingle with his on the wall) and in the soft lighting of the blues/jazz club in which she sings, where Christoffer goes to embrace her serenade.

The film gave me a headache because of the editing of locations. This happens in every film for the sake of artistic license but when you know a city, like the back of your hand, it feels violating and dyslexic. Sometimes a progressive shot, was really the camera going back and forth across the same bridge. There is one scene where the couple takes a taxi ride in the middle of nowhere (some obscure block housing) for a reason that is only apparent in the context of the drama: to have an explosive fight in such an end-of-the-line location.

For me, all of the intended and unintended offenses made sense together, because the film is about alienation that is due solely to one's own neglect (the director, included) for not getting to properly know other people (even one's spouse), places and languages for the sake of maintaining one's isolated and
unshifting perspective on the world. It is hard not to think of Émile Durkheim's seminal tome, Suicide (1897), in which he suggests that the individual, encouraged to pursue his or her individualism (according to his study - by the Protestant church, compared to the culture of Catholicism and Judaism), is more likely to take one's life. In Prag, however, the Danes are dead on arrival.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Grass Is Always Greener...

by Drew Martin

I have had a reoccurring thought that a future spacecraft will be zipping through the universe looking for life on other planets. The mission is long and hard to endure but finally the crew comes upon a brilliant green planet and concludes it must be covered in vegetation and teaming with other forms of life. When the astronauts touch down and deboard in order to explore, they find a toxic atmosphere and the entire, smooth surface of the planet is covered with AstroTurf.

On the weekdays I run up in the hills of a neighboring town but on the weekends I typically run down by a stream in my own town, which takes me by a series of playing fields. The two that are part of the local high school are being converted from natural grass to AstroTurf. I have seen synthetic turf fields from afar on television but I have never been witness to the installation process.

To create such a field, a deadening and massive layer of crushed stone and concrete aggregate is packed into the ground as the base. The AstroTurf is laid on top of this and then several inches of loose crushed black rubber is worked into the long synthetic blades. It is creepy because it is trying to reference grass but it is the opposite of grass: it is hard, dry, burns the skin when you fall on it and it is dead. In fact, it is very dead. Natural fields are usually covered with rabbits and geese in the morning. Swifter birds and insects court in swirling flight above the green sprigs. There is a grassy dew that is refreshing. AstroTurf, however, is dead-still...nothing living stirs and it is completely silent. The sensation is of a large soggy "Welcome!" mat that has been left out in the rain.

Walking on the unfinished field is like being a little mouse on a giant tailor's messy workshop floor: large scraps of green AstroTurf are tossed about, the white and yellow synthetic strips of the same material for the playing lines look like lengths of extra dress trim that weren't needed for the hem. It has a rather sloppy appearance. Off on the side, are numerous and ominous fat, white bags, over six feet high, stuffed full of the crushed black rubber. Despite the newness of the materials and the connection to youthful athleticism, it is a very depressing venture that brings to mind the strip mining for surface brown coal I have seen in Eastern Europe.

I have never felt any emotions for AstroTurf or had an objection to it, especially when I see it in a city, where there might otherwise be only concrete. A brand new synthetic field is neat looking and inviting to play. But seeing this transformation and considering the loss of natural green space is actually quite shocking and makes me wonder what's next: AstroTurf golf courses? Closed communities with AstroTurf lawns? Synthetic fields of fake corn to keep up the appearances of a former farm?

The total area of the new AstroTurf field in my town is about the size of two full football fields. Considering the surface area of grass blades, this is probably a total of ten football fields of an oxygen-producing photosynthesis machine that is being taken off line and replaced with an impotent mesh of plastic with a rubber infill...yet it looks like grass, so we falsely believe it is better than if that same surface were covered in concrete.

Where did this kind of natural substitution thinking begin? The native Americans said the Europeans were so clumsy with and insensitive to nature because their shoes had thick, hard soles and they could not feel the earth beneath their feet. I cannot not also stop thinking about the landscape painters of Europe and America who emphasized nature as their theme. On one side, it is nice that man was so inspired by the great outdoors. On the other side, it is a false beauty and a poor substitute for the real thing. If the genre inspires someone divorced from nature to take to the woods then there is much value in the work but if it seems to simply satisfy or suppress that urge then the art works well simply as illusion but in the end is nothing more than AstroTurf.

To read an article about using AstroTurf in a Museum of Peripheral Art project, click here >>>

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Beautiful Red Square

by Drew Martin

In the Czech film, Kolja (pronounced as Kol-ya), which won the Oscar for the best foreign film in 1997, there is a scene between an elderly Czech man, František Louka, and a five year old Russian boy, Kolja (a diminutive of Nikolai), which the translator let slide because a simple quip would have been too complicated to explain in the short volley.

Louka (which means "meadow" in Czech) is played by the seasoned and beloved Czech actor, Zdeněk Svěrák (the film was directed by his son, Jan). In the scene, he is required to hang a red, white and blue Czechoslovakian flag next to the soviet red Russian flag in the window. Louka does not speak Russian and young Kolja does not speak Czech, although the languages overlap and the elder should also speak Russian. His inability is typical of the mellow Czech defiance that led to the Velvet Revolution.

In the English subtitles (of the US release I saw in 1997) Kolja says "Our flag is beautiful" when he sees Louka putting the flags in the window. Bothered by the remark, Louka replies that his Czech flag is beautiful and the scene moves on. What the boy actually says in Russian is "Our flag is red". The joke is in the word krásná, which means beautiful in Czech and red (krasnaya) in Russian.
Originally, krasnaya also meant beautiful in Russian but over time began to mean only red; the word krasivaya assumed the meaning for beautiful.

This is why Red Square - Красная площадь, (Krasnaya plóshchad') is named as such. It originally meant Beautiful Square, but changed with the evolution of the word krasnaya. It is the largest medieval square in Europe (which I am one to consider Moscow part of) and it is highlighted by the mesmerizing St. Basil's Cathedral (so beautiful that Ivan the Terrible ordered the architect, Postnik Yakovlev, to be blinded...as the legend goes,
so he could not create anything as magnificent).

The picture on the right is one I took during a visit to the Soviet Union in 1986, when I was 16. The line on the right along the wall under the Kremlin and across St. Basil's Cathedral is of Russians waiting to view Lenin on display in his tomb.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Into the Closet

by Drew Martin

Closets send mixed messages. They have been symbols for unwarranted shame of homosexuality and warranted shame for dubious actions of one's past. It is where kids hide when they are angry or in trouble and it is where people hide things from the world: guns, cash, pornography, drugs, etc. Whether you have come out of the closet or have a proverbial skeleton in your closet, it is a relished space in high demand. Everyone needs and wants more closet space and to organize what he or she currently has.

My little gallery took a big blow this past weekend when I converted it into a walk-in closet for my personal belongings, which freed up two long closets for others. Logistically, the previous arrangement was not working because my things were often next to slumbering souls, which meant fumbling around in the dark and walking on tiptoe when I was up early in the morning.

The former gallery wall that I built currently supports a six and a half foot-long pole from which my clothes are suspended on wooden, wire and plastic hangers. Across from this are my shoes, lined up in order and arranged accordingly to usage. The nice thing is that it is a place I spend more time in now and it still has artifacts from its gallery days. Plus, I can see all my stuff in one glance, which is essential for control freaks. (Pictured left is a photo I took this morning on my way out, of the entrance to the new closet)

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

There Is No Their There: Grammarians Oughta Snickr

by Drew Martin

If you use the photosharing site Flickr a lot, you will notice that each image can be viewed at multiple sizes, depending on the resolution of the original picture. This makes sense if you are interested in downloading an image and do not have Photoshop or a less robust program to resize it to the exact dimensions you require.

I am sure most graphic artists typically grab the largest original size and work with it: I certainly do. Many photographers do not allow their photographs to be downloaded, which means the various sizes are unnecessary. My problem with this block is not the restriction (though I claim otherwise in my posting on Image Karma), technical oversight (even though it follows the heading "All available sizes") or the new look & feel, which seems to require more clicks to do anything.

My feathers are ruffled by the English message that informs the user he or she does not have the photographer's permission to download it.

The note reads:

The owner has disabled downloading of their photos.

This is grammatically incorrect. It should read:

The owner has disabled the downloading of his or her photos.

Actually, the programming could be sophisticated enough to personalize it to gender of the user...so in this case, for the Norwegian photographer I stumbled upon, }~T~{ , it would say either:

The owner has disabled the downloading of her photos.

Or even:

}~T~{ has disabled the downloading of her photos.

To avoid all of this, Flickr could simply write:

The owner has disabled the downloading of this photo.

Or simply...

This photo cannot be downloaded.

I understand that people are not consulting Flickr (or this blog for that matter) for grammar, but considering the 85+ million unique worldwide visits the site receives each month, this error is getting a lot of traction...granted, the site can be searched in at least eight languages and this message only appears when the English-reading user wishes to download a restricted image.

Having a truncated name such as Flickr is cute and part of a branding trend that that became popular in the 1990's, although the preschool-dyslexic Toys "Я" Us logo predates this by a couple decades (which my former Russian teacher wanted to believe was really the Cyrillic letter, Я, used for the personal pronoun for I: "ja").

I actually find such logos interesting and do not mind their stepping on the toes of language because they show an evolution from text to image, often abandoning font families for unique artwork, while they maintain a status which combines verbal and visual languages. That being said, the fact that some people are visual, while others are literal, does not warrant a life-long pass to ignore the basics from the other side. Just as graphic artists appreciate consistency in branding and attention to detail to avoid skewing, pixelation, etc., grammar should be respected accordingly. Whether this began with Caterina Fake and her team when they founded Flickr or happened as an after-purchase grammar-glitch by Yahoo!, I hope someone attends to it before the world falls apart.

"There is no there there" is from Gertrude Stein's Everybody's Autobiography. When she returned to California in the 1930s and wanted to visit her childhood home in Oakland, she could not find the house: "there is no there there."

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Soul of Things

by Drew Martin

When I am in a foreign land, where everything seems different, I am often struck by the universal familiarity of a dog or a cat. When I see a Volkswagen bus in or near Germany, however, I am a bit surprised. I always think "Don't you belong in California?" It's odd because while some animals and even objects may have a certain attitude of their locale, the VW bus seems soulless when not being toured up and down the Pacific Coast by neo-hippies with bundles of sage on the dashboard or transformed to some eccentric's taste. Back in the Fatherland the vehicle seems utilitarian and generic.

Marcel Duchamp came across as an aesthetic prankster when he proposed products such as a urinal, bottle rack, bicycle wheel and snow shovel as art objects but what he actually did was bring attention to the sensibility of things that seemed lost in the modern world.

The animation of machines with electricity and fuels made it easy for humans to comprehend the life of something mechanical. In the Cuban film "Fresa y chocolate" one character speaks to his refrigerator and even threatens it at times. Duchamp reloaded simple objects with personality not seen since the middle ages, when swords, shields, cloaks and rings were saturated with personality and meaning.

In a modern twist on this, the Precious ring of The Lord of the Rings series, controls the will of its owner. Such a personal trait can even been seen as far back as The Odyssey, with Ulysses' bow. He is the only man who can string it and load it with an arrow. This object is not just prop for a test of manliness, but an obeying partner and a metaphor for his (re)union with Penelope in the face of less deserving suitors.

Modern artists since Duchamp have played with the personality of objects, beyond his ready-mades. Claes Oldenburg made a post-coital soft drum set, while Jeff Koons cast a stainless steel inflatable rabbit, which he has expressed having the aura of an ancient sun god. Certainly Anish Kapoor's Cloud Gate, a.k.a. the Bean in Chicago has a mesmerizing draw on people.

In my own possession I have two found objects that I keep close because of their personalities. One is Petina, a mass produced lawn deer, whose demise has given it a unique disposition. The other is the casing for an outdoor motorboat propeller, I call Polyphemus (pictured right - named after the blinded cyclops from The Odyssey) whose darkened orifices reference the blinded eye and screaming mouth of the giant.

Saturday, August 21, 2010


by Drew Martin

I typically do not write on the fly like this. Nor do I ever write in bed...but I have not fleshed out the next post yet and I just wanted to make a little blog interjection here. I am feeling very Proustian, with my back to the headboard, looking out on the green garden on a lazy Saturday morning.

Sometimes I coin terms when I find them necessary. Each issue of my emailed periodical Character featured, for example, a Leditor (a letter from the editor). So today I thought I would write a Biotuary (a short bio about someone whose whereabouts are unknown).

In college, I had a friend named Casey, who was one of the most peculiar artists I have known. I recently thought of him because I started reading Walter Bosing's book on Hieronymus Bosch. It's a Taschen book and riddled with mistakes...(if anyone from Taschen is reading this...please take "ist" off your spellcheck as an OK word. First sentence of the book: The strange world of Hieronymus Bosch ist best studied in the Museo del Prado in Madrid.)

On the first day of a lithography class at the University of California at Santa Barbara in the late 1980's, Casey showed up with a mass of kinky hair, dagger-like finger nails and wearing only a pair of thick wool socks on his feet, which he had walked in from his apartment about a mile away. The teacher set us to a roulette of introductions in which we were to say which artist had influenced us the most. Casey said Hieronymus Bosch, and spent the rest of the class muttering that he did not know why he had said that. I did not know much about Bosch at the time but it seemed like a decent match for him.

I remember several of Casey's apartments. A few of them seemed to have public access. Once I showed up when a homeless physicist was transforming himself in his bathroom. Apparently the roommate who had let him in had left so whenever the guy cracked open the door to ask which razor, toothbrush or towel, for example, he should use, Casey and the other roommate who awoke to the intrusion quickly responded for him to use that which belonged to the roommate who had let him in.

At another location (one of those poorly-built two-story courtyard buildings, common in southern California), Casey and his roommates had an even more interesting environment. Someone who had disliked the ringing of the phone, had altered it so that when the phone "rang," a small electric motor, mounted high up on a wall, whirled a spoon at the end of a long piece of string. The tenant learned that the spinning spoon, rattling against the wall was an incoming call. This was later replaced with a light bulb that flashed, only that the filament of the light bulb was of Jesus on the cross. The refrigerator of this place was neither clean nor well-stocked and the freezer section was devoted entirely to a diorama of a frozen battleground of little creatures at war.

Once Casey and a couple friends decided to have a parade through Isla Vista, the college town of UCSB. He was a robot and there were only one or two others actually parading but there was also a mobile spectator group, as small in number, which followed them block-by-block. Casey was usually out walking around at night, playing his clarinet or up in his apartment working on a project. Once I was returning home from somewhere around 3 a.m. and stopped by his place because I noticed his light was on. He was up looking for ghosts and was a bit surprised when I appeared.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous Artists

by Drew Martin

I recently finished reading Lives of Artists by Calvin Tomkins, which is simply a collection of his articles for The New Yorker. For the most part, they have the other-worldly elitist slant you would expect from The New York Times about overpaid yuppies who have fantastic lives. Perhaps the quick-witted cartoons of The New Yorker and its magazine format typically make their articles seem excruciatingly long but in book form, however, they seem incomplete.

Not to say I did not enjoy reading it (I did) but the brief survey of each artist came across as formulated and statistical:

a humble start + perseverance x conviction = success

To the book's credit it is certainly informative. I learned, for example, that the man of steel, Richard Serra, was originally an English major at my Alma mater - UC Santa Barbara and started working with lead because of his good friend, the minimalist composer, Philip Glass who had access to it through his day job as a plumber.

The biographical sketches include Matthew Barney, Maurizio Cattelan, John Currin (work pictured below-right), Damien Hirst, Jasper Johns, Jeff Koons, Richard Serra, Cindy Sherman (unfortunately the only woman discussed, pictured above-left) and James Turrell.

A review I came across by Martha Schwendener is perhaps the best consideration of the book, which likens the profiles to the Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous:

"When you borrow the title of your book from Vasari, legendary chronicler of the Italian Renaissance, some claims are implicit. Vasari, after all, was candid about his aim to install certain artists in history, and his picks have mostly stood the test of time. Tomkins’s Lives follows a different criterion of canonization. We’re not reading about artists per se but market-approved art stars, the celebrity-culture concept that has all but replaced Vasari’s notion of the divinely appointed genius."

From this perspective many of the quotes come across not as insightful but simply privileged and delusional such as John Currin's "I came to the conclusion that there is no misery in art. All art is about saying yes, and all art is about its own making."

Monday, August 16, 2010

Open Wide: Freak Show II

by Drew Martin

I just got back from the opening of Freak Show II in Prague. I used to shy away from openings because I wanted to focus on the art work and not the socializing but this opening (which I attended because I am in the show) has changed my opinion because of the access to the artists and peripheral events; all in the spirit of the work.

At the opening, the American artist, Clint Takeda, performed on his electric guitar with an array of feedback pedals. Wearing a long red wig and cloaked in a hooded jacket, Clint piled on overlapping layers of noise amongst a crowded gallery of cheerful, beer-in-hand Bohemians, which restored a grunge-Prague I recall from the early 1990's. He performed in a corner with his creature sculptures, which he had displayed last year at the first Freak Show, and in front of new books he made for this occasion, which were nailed to the wall, with dangling ribbon placeholders.

I regret not spending more time with the little books because they are probably the most intimate and formal pieces in the show. They are small and filled with delicate line drawings and patches of color. I remember Clint making similar visual diaries last year, which were equally interesting. A page in one of this year's books included an iodine transfer from the gauze bandage that had dressed his head wound (gash is probably a better term) he earned from a fall during a dash for a tram at the beginning of the week. It is hard for me to think of a Freak Show without Clint. He flies in from Philadelphia, where he currently works and lives. He has the time of his life for a week, often disappearing in the labyrinth of Prague, and surfaces before the show to install his work and perform at the opening.

I prepared two projects for the show. One was a microscope projection piece that failed miserably but was fortunately small enough and in a neglected corner of a backroom that it went unnoticed and its absence had no impact on the overall show. The other was a photography project, which was a serial extension to my Under the Hood - Portraits of My Neighbors show which I had done in Ridgewood, New Jersey and Los Angeles, California. When the curator, Tony Ozuna, asked me to do this kind of project in Prague, I was at first reluctant because I did not think about how it could work. The more I thought about it, the more I liked it.

The am180 collective gallery is a small, alternative space, that draws its crowds from a cool and connected Prague art world but is somewhat removed from its surrounding neighborhood, physically and culturally. That I could possibly create a visual survey of the gallery's neighbors and attempt to get them to into the space, was very attractive. I flew in two days before the show and the day before the opening, at a quarter to eight in the morning, I started walking within a few block radius of the gallery with my old Ricoh camera and five rolls of black and white film.

My home town neighborhood was all too willing to participate in my shoot and everyone I asked in the Silver Lake and Echo Park areas of Los Angeles agreed to have his or her picture taken. I know Czechs well enough, having lived amongst them for five years, and knew I was going the have some problems. Though Tony later said I should have shot at different times of the day (and he's right), I like to capture a place in a span of a couple hours. A lot of the rejections were indeed because people were running off to catch a tram or metro to work, but the average Czech is a bit more guarded than the average Californian.

The result of the shoot was just shy of 200 black and white photo portraits of many Czechs, one Russian, one Ukrainian, a Vietnamese shopkeeper, two young Chinese tourists staying at the neighboring hostel, a handful of foreign laborers at various jobsites (whose backgrounds I did not inquire about), several dogs, two cats, found objects, some signage and graffiti.

My favorite rejection was from one guy hurrying down the street, who stopped for a second to say "Fakt?" before continuing on. This word can often sound like "f---ked" and combined with his facial expressions and a shaking of his hand was short for "Are you f---king kidding me. I don't have time for this sh-t."

The ease and confidence of the Los Angeles participants was replaced by shyness and bewilderment by many people in my Prague turf. It was not so much that the decline of my Czech language put them off as it was something about the Czechs themselves. All of the fetching women expressed they were not photogenic and that they might break my camera.

My spiel, in Czech, was "Good day. I am an artist from America taking pictures of people who live and work in this area for an exhibition tomorrow night..."

I approached every one I could, even a gypsy prostitute and her pimp who were making a house call (they declined), and gave all the participants an invitation to the opening and told each person he or she could come and take his or her pictures off the wall or from a clothesline that bisected the front garden. Sadly, only one person from my survey showed up (perhaps because it was pouring rain at the start). I hope the others will make their way there during the gallery hours over the next month and have a look.

The participant who did show up made the shoot worthwhile. He was one of the first people I shot and we probably spent about fifteen minutes together. I meet him after I started talking to a young gypsy who was drunk (or drugged) and was stumbling down the street with a very fancy camera he had apparently lifted from a tourist. The young thief agreed to let me take his picture with the camera but not on that open street. He asked me to walk down a side street with him and then things got a little awkward so I retreated and bumped into the man I ended up photographing.

He was a street sweeper and was embarrassed and reluctant but said I could take his picture for 20 crowns (about a dollar) because said he wasn't doing well and needed to buy bread. He settled for the 13 crowns jingling in my pocket and was the last person I expected to show up but he actually arrived a half hour early with his partner, a sophisticated and lovely, well-dressed woman who spoke English flawlessly and had once worked for Czech Airlines.

Even without the others showing up, I think the project works here because they are all part of the show now and hanging on the gallery walls. Tony's first comment when seeing the pictures was that they were "wholesome", which I think is accurate.

Czechs have interesting faces with handsome features and many of the participants were not merely compliant but liked the idea and giggled between shutter clicks. They seem out of place in the club-like gallery and perhaps this sits well with Tony's original concept of the show: that artists are seen as freaks by the common pedestrian; I certainly must have been to most of the people I met.

While the two Freak Shows have displayed artists and works that perhaps support this notion, what I wanted to do here was to introduce the other side of the equation. Without such an explanation, however, this will be lost on most viewers, who will wonder why these pictures are amongst grittier work. What I especially like about the concept behind my shoot is that it is entirely specific to this time and place. It makes my being there purposeful and necessary: I would feel odd traveling all this way to hang something I did elsewhere for another reason.

Clint and I were the only two Americans and foreigners in the show. The majority of the exhibit is filled with 14 drawings by Josef Bolf (pictured at the top), two paintings (and one silhouette cut-out of a head) by Lenka Vítková, a video loop and drawing by Veronika Bromová, a mural/photo collage by Jolana Ruchařová, three carved dildo/phallusses ending in fetuses of various stages/sizes by Lenka Klodová (pictured left) and a wonderful big diorama by Marie Hladíková (detail below).

This last piece is my favorite in the show and one that best fits the show name, in my opinion. The diorama puts you deep underground in a cavern that is full of stalactites and stalagmites, protruding coal and rock formations and accents of gems and crystals. The internally lit diorama is big enough to crawl into and sits on top of slabs of styrofoam. Two creatures, a larger black bat-like thing and a smaller white mate are tethered from their hearts by a common artery. A little angel-like creature looks on from above, crying chains of tears.

I fell in love with Marie's work before meeting her last year when I was looking at the other artists' works on their respective websites. It's edgy and punkish but also soulful and sweet. Although it is made from cheaper materials (foam and glue-gun silicone) she has amazing surfaces, such as the body of the white lover, made with air-drying clay and covered in nail polish. Despite the fact that I respond immediately to its fantasy and quirkiness, Marie has a great sense of volume and spatial relations.

During a slightly chaotic moment the night before the show, Tony expressed a little concern that Marie was going to show "a cloud", which was something other than he was expecting, although he did not see it. I saw the cloud in parts the next day when I went with Marie to her studio. Even though it was not assembled, it was fantastic. It looked like a huge silver foam meteorite, which is to be pinned with strings of silicon raindrops.

The opening was attended mostly by Czechs with some American expats and a few other Eastern Europeans. There was one walk-in; a young French man who happened to be strolling by this off-the-beaten-path place and immediately embraced the interesting crowd.

To view an online book of a larger selection from my photos in Prague, click here>>>

Monday, August 9, 2010

Freak Show II

I will be taking a break from posting this week in order to travel to the Czech Republic and set up for Lil' Freaks: Freak Show II.

This year, the show will run from August 13th to September 27th at the a.m. 180 collective in Prague. Returning from last year's show with new works are the Czech artists Lenka Vítková, Josef Bolf, Veronika Bromová, Marie Hladíková and Jolana Ruchařová along with the two American artists: Clint Takeda and me (Drew Martin). New to this year's show with be the well known Czech artist Lenka Klodová.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Disconnect the Dots

by Drew Martin

Last week I went to the opening night gala of the Mostly Mozart Festival at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. It was a wonderful evening with great performances by the mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe and pianist Emanuel Ax. The curious thing was that at climatic orchestral moments I felt a disconnect. The music and the movements seemed unrelated. Despite understanding what was physically happening, it appeared to me that the violinists were furiously trying to saw their instruments in half with their bows.

I had a similar sensation a couple days later at the Film Forum when I settled into my seat with a small gathering of silver-haired ladies for a mid-day showing of Tamra Davis' documentary Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child. Simply put, the film is a gem. Davis filmed Basquiat painting at the peak of his career and captured a close-up and candid interview with him. Basquiat animates the screen by joyfully dancing in his studio, childishly writing on the canvases and of course, prolifically painting.

The disconnect came in a couple of the studio scenes. He appears to be tired and bored; going through the motions. Although the gesture is that of painting, it was hard for me to understand that he was working on this or that particular canvas. Instead, it seemed like he was at the task of painting an old chair or a rusty fire hydrant. That being said, the ultimate connection is seeing Basquiat's beautiful eyes and radiant smile up close.

Davis' film is the closest one can get to Basquiat now and it makes Julian Schnabel's Basquiat seem obsolete because everything in the latter is a poor substitute, including the copies of the paintings he had his assistants paint (because he did not get permission to use the originals). Schnabel cast for and directed visual references/convincing look-alikes, but everything lacks the soul we see in Davis' film and the bee-bop jazz rhythm that Basquiat expressed liking, which she embraces so well.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

A Stairing Contest

by Drew Martin
Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending A Staircase No. 2 (pictured left) is one of the most influential paintings in the history of modern art. Duchamp reinterpreted Eadweard Muybridge's sequence of a naked woman walking down a flight of stairs from his 1887 Animal Locomotion (pictured above).

Duchamp combined Futurist and Cubist ideas in a unique way and depicted movement through fragmentation. Most viewers weren't impressed by its showing in the 1913 New York Armory Show. In fact, the piece was mocked, much to the Frenchman's delight.

I like looking at this painting now in a different light. We cater our movements and behavior to our environment. It is a Darwinian idea that follows us all the way into our homes. Furnishings, architecture and the details of urban planning effect our posture, sense of space and movements.

Stairs are arguably one of the most loaded of all the architectural impositions on nature because there is a visual disruption, which is geometric and fragmented, but there is also a distortion in corporeal articulation: ascending and descending them causes the body to move in a very mechanical way. Perhaps we all harbor memories of the dangers of stairs from when we were toddlers but I think our reaction is much more complicated. It is interesting to look at how stairs are used in art.

For Maurits Cornelis Escher, they were a kind of visual madness: the ultimate labyrinth with no solution (pictured right). For filmmakers such as Sergei Eisentstein (Battleship Potemkin, pictured at bottom) and Alfred Hitchcock (Vertigo, Psycho...), stairs are the stage for suspense and carnage. For the Aztecs this morbidity was much more real: the sacrificed bodies, with torn out hearts, were kicked down the steep steps of the pyramid temples for onlookers to fear.

To say the stair is metaphoric and symbolic is simply too superficial. Humans gravitate towards organic forms and seem to tolerate geometric intrusions, which are usually met, then ingrained, with tension and anxiety. Duchamp unconsciously gets at the earliest reaction to stairs without the emotional layering we see in much of film and the visual arts.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Re-Creating the Art World in Seven Days

by Drew Martin

I recently finished Seven Days in the Art World by Sarah Thornton. Typically, I read painfully slow and take copious notes in order to mine and process precious thoughts but this book is so accessible and laden with gems that I simply surrendered from the start and let her take me for a ride. Thornton is ubiquitous in her presence and omnivorous in her consumption. She writes herself the ultimate press pass into the art world and sneaks the reader in as her special guest.

Not to judge this book by its cover, but the jacket designs vary, depending on distribution. Many of the European versions, for example, feature Maurizio Cattelan's stuffed horse, mounted by its headless neck. The U.S. edition, which I read, shows a black-high-heeled and a fair, silky leg (Thornton's body double) slipping through an opening between the white-walled rooms of a museum. I like this image best because it sets the pace and tone of the book: Thornton keeps the reader on the move...on her heels.

Seven Days In The Art World is not a book about art appreciation or idolization of the famous players and it is never a tutorial Art for Dummies. It is a candid, behind-the-scenes look at the machinery and politics of auctions, prizes, magazines and art shows as well as the exposed frustrations of a college art crit class and the demanding work environment of an artist's studio.

The American cover is not a far cry from the tension of a Hopper painting and it has the cool, minimal attitude of American conceptual art. All of the other covers focus on the art object and the "but is it art?" aspect of that object. Sadly, Cattelan's poor horse becomes something of mockery and humiliation in the context of the cover, despite his intentions, which I hope were not simply to amuse. It reminds me to ensure that my survivors dispose of my corpse with a bit more dignity.

The flow of Thornton's writing is impressive considering it is the culmination of over 250 interviews and that each chapter only marks one day; some are even 18 months apart. She even offers the dates in the conclusive Author's Note:

The (Christie's) Auction - 10 Nov. 2004
The (CalArts) Crit - 17 Dec 2004
The (Art Basel) Fair - 13 Jun 2006 (& 15 Jun 2004)
The (Turner) Prize - 4 Dec 2006
The (Artforum) Magazine - 14 Feb 2007
The (Takashi Murakami) Studio Visit - 6 Jul 2007
The (Venice) Biennale - 9 Jun 2007

Or, in other words, the time between chapters looks like this in progressive months:

+2+18+6 +2 +5 -1

That spans 33 months of her commitment to this project, which took Thornton five years. On the same page, she explains a detail of her writing, which reveals the magic behind the fluidity of her time:

In the interest of narrative flow, I sometimes found it necessary to practice what I call "displaced non-fiction." In which a quote completed in a phone call is situated "on location" in a real art world scene.

This book works because Thornton immerses herself in the art world without losing her curious pursuit of getting to the bottom of things and without ever pretending to be the know-it-all or connected. A quote on the back book jacket of my edition, from Alan Yentob, creative director, BBC likens her to a spy dropped in behind enemy lines. It's an appropriate analogy because she never forgets her mission and seems to always have her concealed microphone on and has positioned the secret camera so there is an unobstructed view for us. Of course, there is no enemy here, and Thornton never suggests that, but there is a parallel universe, or at least a secret society, which she is able to become part of, where millions of dollars are spent on paintings and sculptures and assistants endure extreme work conditions in an effort to create art.

Curiously, an appropriate celebrity doppelgänger for Thornton is Tina Fey. While you read her as straight faced in some of the most absurd moments, you can only imagine that same intelligent and witty spark in her eyes while trying to refrain from an array of reactions most of us would have. Although Seven Days in the Art World is certainly timely, I think it will be a good read for many years with a kind of Jerome Klapka Jerome freshness to it.

Despite Thornton's hip sensibilities, she digs deep and seriously as the ethnographer she is, wielding a Ph.D. in Cultural Sociology and a B.A. in Art History. This academic background certainly explains Thornton's thoroughness. Fortunately, her writing is never too heavy handed and her intended subtext, that art is a kind of religion for atheists, is never really thematic. She offers this idea in the introduction and makes a biblical connection with the title but barely returns to this notion as would another writer of modern culture, such as Malcolm Gladwell, whose declarations litter his books as a redundant chorus. Personally, that would have spoiled her efforts for me, as I have previously explained in my Church of Art post.

A minor theme throughout the book, which I found refreshing, is swimming. Thornton's interstitial laps punctuate the book like Juliette Binoche's dips in Kieslowski's Blue. The metaphor is also more than just a structural break:

Scott Fitzgerald described writing as "swimming underwater and holding your breath." Lawrence Alloway portrayed the Venice Biennale as "the avant-garde in a goldfish bowl." I lie down on the side of the pool and enjoy the colliding currents of the two thoughts.

I find it interesting that Thornton's research included freelancing gigs for Tate Magazine, Art Review, Art Monthly,
Artforum.com and The New Yorker. It takes her ethnographic "participant observation" to another level. There is a confidence in that and she must have been anticipating the great reception of this book. It reminds me of a quote she jots down from Amy Cappellazzo of Christie's in the buzzing atmosphere of the Venice Biennale:

"...Everyone is secretly expecting that something beautiful will happen to them."