Friday, October 29, 2010

This Old Starship

by Drew Martin

Captain's Log, Stardate 2010. Have recently been joining my 10 year old son and 12 year old daughter every evening to watch early episodes of Star Trek, resulting in a strange phenomenon: life has improved on planet Earth.

Revisiting Star Trek has been a pleasant eye opener. Despite some flimsy props and dated effects, there is a lot of production in the shows: orchestrated music, a well-casted ensemble of characters with a few spurts of decent-but-melodramatic acting, and writing with substance that references the Bible, Greek mythology and Moby Dick.

Despite taking place more than 2,000 years in the future and being tagged with the nuances of English speakers from the mid 1960's, the Roddenberry sci-fi lingo is anchored in nautical terminology: most specifically, WWII battleship and submarine-flavored phrases...though many expressions, such as "captain's log" are much older.

One thing that I found interesting was the overarching concept of maintenance: keeping a crew in order and preventing the ship from falling apart. The U.S.S. Enterprise reminds me a lot of my 100+ year old house...things are always breaking and in need of clever repair. There is no Home Depot in outer space so jury-rigging* is key. Typically, I freak out at home when the project of the week leaves me spelunking in basement muck or covered in plaster dust but now I view these trying moments as episodic challenges. As fictional and fantastic as Star Trek may be, the characters' woes are intense and never ending.

Recently, my father and I cut out a busted section of steam piping next to my boiler and replaced it without jeopardizing a crew of 400 and this morning I discharged water from a broken washing machine with the luxury of not being under Klingon attack.

*fyi: jury-rig is a nautical term from 1788 referring to the jury mast (coined in 1616) to mean a temporary mast in response to damage from storm or battle...and, most likely, short for "injury" mast. Not to be confused with jerry-built (1869) for shoddy, makeshift construction.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


by Drew Martin

We often think of media as a direct flow from creator to audience or the back and forth of interactive users. Whether it's the lone Russian novelist meticulously crafting a story or a call-in radio talk show, we reason there is intent followed by labor/performance/usage, which results in a book, broadcast, episode, movie, website, etc.

Media, however, is not so cause and effect: not so obvious. One can write simply to create a way of thinking...and one can take notes not for the sake of taking notes, but simply for the enhancement of memory, which is the side effect of the process. One can also write letters and then tear them up...letters to relatives, lovers, politicians and authorities. The letter exists not to exist.

The potential of existing and reaching the supposed target holds drama and suspense. Think of how well Vladimir Nabakov plays on this tension in Lolita. He extracts the adult-moralist conscious in what might as well be a letter of confession and embeds this in the character of Lolita's mother. Instead of having Humbert write and then destroy the confession, Lolita's mother writes a letter to expose Humbert but is run over and killed while darting across the street to mail it. In the linear narrative of the novel this little media interjection opens the book up to consequential possibilities and leaves us on edge until the end.

The function of this kind of letter for us in real life is to release ideas from our minds. Externalizing a thought, frees it from the burden of concealment: from what feels like a physical enclosure within our heads. It's a common therapy, isn't it? Though my mother always told me, you should never write anything you don't want the whole world to see. So true.

The duality of purpose and non-purpose is an important concept in media. In many regards most media exist but simultaneously don't exist. Sometimes people see movies together, whether they realize it or not, just to be sit side by side and continue to discuss them only to have a conversation. I am not criticizing that kind of involvement and interaction, simply pointing out that the movie itself is not so important and that going to see and discussing a movie both parties hate may be, in the end, more bonding of an experience than seeing something they both love.

Scholars of media, may literally stand with their backs to the screen, watching an audience as intensely as that audience follows the action. Outside of academia, there is even a whole genre of reactionary postings on YouTube of people reacting to shocking footage for the first time. The person recording the expression assumes we, the viewers, understand what is being watched, so the only thing in frame is the expression of surprise, disgust, etc.

I have written before about how art is helpful for archaeologists in placing artifacts, and I have heard (perhaps its an urban legend) that some universities use pornographic films to study period pieces of furniture. My father told me that when he was working on his Ph.D. in nuclear physics, he and his colleagues used the steady signal from Russian satellites as a constant to determine the varying strength of the Ionosphere. What these three ideas share is that they approach a medium beyond the original intent, which suggests there are undiscovered worlds to all media.

We are at a point in technological history where media is reclaiming the interactivity of the public square. What we have grown to understand as the linear narrative is merely a result of one-way media: books and movies could only really function properly in one direction, compared to a story teller, who can cater to the age, size, background and cues of a crowd. Likewise, a comedian can stop and ask the audience a question and then proceed accordingly to the responses.

Sites such as attempt to be über-relational in order to "personalize the Internet", but media is still a far way from the dynamic comedian taking the pulse of the audience. We still operate by being selective from the start: by knowing which comedians we like and what genre of movies we prefer. Perhaps there will be a time when websites can react to our laughter and be able to switch from an archives of comedians so that a joke by Richard Pryor is followed by George Carlin and then Joan Rivers, just to keep us rolling beyond the isolated skit.

Perhaps one film can have multiple ratings but play according to the audience it senses or have a slight change in plot and end depending on how many times the viewer has seen it. In the 1980s, books and movies attempted this. Some books had the reader jumping back and forth to different pages according to choices he or she made and some movies released different endings but the choice itself was disruptive and knowing that there were different endings turned out to not be that big of a surprise.

While advanced Google algorithms and efforts by to amass as much information about you to customize your preferences, the less obvious approach will happen when the computer notices which shoes you are wearing, can comment on your tattoo, or detects when you are down and need some cheering up.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Into Plein Air

by Drew Martin

The other day I rode my bicycle by some powerlines in my town in New Jersey. It doesn't sound very picturesque but they are not the kind of powerlines you would associate with bleak sci-fi landscape and brain cancer. The imperfect poles are tawny, rough-hewn pine trees with slack, black wires. They aren't buzzing, sizzling or crackling with juice. The strip of grassy land beneath the electrical cables runs parallel to a brook, which is canopied by the woods: combined, they provide a wide slice of greenery with paths that are ideal for running or walking. You will usually find there a lone, middle-aged person in casual but preppy garb walking a golden retriever or some other kind of family dog who has shared the duties of raising three or more kids and now, like its owner, enjoys peaceful strolls in nature.

On the day I rode by, there was a young man with an easel and oils set up near the road. His back was to me and he was painting the greenery before him in an impressionist manner. I am always surprised when I see a younger artist painting in a style I consider of generations past, but plein air artists are alive and well.

David Sweetman reminds us in his tome Paul Gauguin: A Life that the style and methods were once cutting edge, which had "a wiff of radicalism about them".

He continues to discuss the "landscapes painted outside and not as officially ordained, safely in a studio and blessed with a respectable classical touch - by, say, a Doric temple on a distant hilltop. Where, today, Barbizon paintings look solid and sombre...they were thought to be dangerously light, enough to strike at the very roots of national culture. To go out into the forest of Fontainbleu, near to Barbizon, and paint direct from nature was in itself a protest, a statement that reality with all its flaws was more vital than the ordered antique dreamworld created in the studio. Such action, so the opponents of the 'plein air' painters believed, undermined the hierarchical order which sustained the nation and which was replicated in the world of art by the established structure of the Academy and the Salon jury."

Gauguin's stepfather and benefactor collected such work..."and by admitting it to his drawing room, Gustave Arosa was placing himself firmly amongst the avant-garde and was, although he was unaware of it, offering Paul Gauguin, the future artist, an introduction to some of the most recent ideas on art, bypassing completely the conventional 'art pompier' favoured by court and salon and the art schools of the day. Through his personal taste, Gustave Arosa enabled his ward to avoid the long process of growing out of academic convention before moving onto the new, the laborious journey that most artists were forced to make. Instead, Gauguin was propelled into the here and now."

Today's plein air artists probably do not view themselves so boldly and will not go down in the history of art as movers and shakers but the "protest" inherent to their art is now as important as remain sure-footed in the real world with real sunlight as we move into more virtual spaces with computer simulations of natural settings.

The young man pictured and mentioned above is Kyle Emory McCullough.

The paintings shown here are by my uncle, Jerry Martin, who is also a plein air artist.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Colón Cancer

by Drew Martin

I had such a fulfilling three-day weekend, that it feels like a year has passed since Friday. Much of this had to do with going to the Atlantic Ocean and swapping the bounded density of the city and the looping of specific thoughts for the expanses of sand and water, and the openness of the brilliant, sunny sky.

I finished off Columbus Day yesterday by popping in on an evening lecture my mother was giving at a nearby college, where she teaches (in retirement). She was stepping in for a colleague and was showing that graduate class images surrounding the events of Christopher Columbus (aka Cristoforo Colombo, aka Cristóbal Colón) and Hernán Cortés, whose diaries they were reading.

It was really quite amazing and the students sat mesmerized for over two hours for this unbiased presentation on the day of an ambiguous "holiday", explaining why the visual culture of the Mexicans has been overwhelmingly pro-Aztec since the beginning of the 16th century, while in Peru, the Europeans were often shown as angels despite the more brutal and devastating attack by Francisco Pizarro and his men on the Incas.

The slideshow included maps of Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City) as depicted by Cortés as well as early 16th century engravings and prints of the natives by European artists such as Albrecht Dürer, who had seen Aztecs "on tour" when the natives were brought back to show off, often merely to perform acrobatic tricks and to satisfy an insatiable western curiosity of all things "savage".

If you overlook the live sacrifices (cutting out of pumping hearts) and cannibalizing (barbecuing arms and legs) of their neighbors, the Aztecs had a very advanced civilization and many of the slides were devoted to the precolumbian artwork, including the gorgeous stone carvings and other craftwork of the feathered serpent deity, Quetzalcoatl, the sun god, Tonatiuh, and the rain god, Tlaloc (pictured right). When my mother mentioned Tlaloc's name, it started pouring outside, on cue, with thunder and lightning.

One treat for me was that the LCD PowerPoint projection was mixed with an old-school 35mm slideshow...using my mother's slides from numerous trips to Spain and Mexico. Every once in awhile my father would pop up in a plaza in Salamanca or by a pyramid in Teotihuacan.

I think what the students appreciated most, in addition to simply "seeing" certain relevant locations, was the visual narrative offered by artists such as José Clemente Orozco (pictured top). Indeed, these can be heavy-handed and obvious, but that's the point...that's why they are poignant. He used them as a public art to tell his version of the story of his people, just as the Catholic Church used frescoes and stained glass to proselytize and promote its own stories. The difference is, Orozco is always rawer, exposing history and turning it inside out.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Amish in the City: Rob Pruitt on a Rumspringa

by Drew Martin

Last week I was walking by GBE (Gavin Brown's Enterprise) and noticed a show so I popped in and had a look around.

Then I walked a few yards up to the neighboring gallery, Maccarone, and saw a continuation of the same show so I popped in and had a look around there too. Then I went back to GBE and then back to Maccarone.

It was very manic (this back and forth of mine) because all I had originally set out to do was buy some carrot juice at D'Agostino.

GBE is not a thinker's gallery (and that's not a criticism). It's about surface and size. The current show, Pattern and Degradation by Rob Pruitt, fits the bill. What is surprising, however, is to see it spill over into Maccarone, which tends to show more challenging work.

Pruitt's work, however, satisfies both galleries and proves here that that you don't always need good fences to make good neighbors. Maybe that was his salt of the earth intention in this Amish-inspired show.

The starting point for Pattern and Degradation is Rumspringa, a time of recklessness permitted to the plain youth before they officially accept to live an Amish lifestyle. Maybe you could call this... The show the Amish would love to hate. But perhaps they would openly express interest in his paintings, which reference their quilt patterns, or by how he transforms those blasphemous rubber tires of the English.

Sometimes when you are on Pennsylvania Dutch turf, (places such as Lancaster, Strasburg, Paradise, Bird in Hand kidding...Intercourse) you will see young lads tilling and plowing the earth with six-mule teams. But if you get up close...perhaps to buy some fresh goat milk from one of the will notice things around the corner of a barn...such as a handful of older, bearded men piling into a minivan.

Pruitt's show is not only a nod to youthful urges but the Rumspringa awaiting every one, at every age.

There is literally fodder in the show, such as those tire stacks topped off with various snacks for the peckish viewer: pretzels, chocolate gold coins, candies and Oreos (like little versions of the tires) and there is also a lot of fun and, at times, formal elements.

In fact, the whole show could be categorized as fodder, fun and formal.

But there is even something deeper to say about those easy tire sculptures: Pruitt paints them in such a way to accentuate their functional patterns, and with that he creates abstract identities.

The most formal and contemplative work is a room of mismatched chairs (and by chairs I mean proper caned chairs, wheelchairs, lab stools and logs). In the one room there are 77 chairs, all facing large self portraits, giving the space a congregational feel. In another room, there are an additional 12 chairs, which, with planks of wood, make up four benches. All the "chairs" and "benches" are covered in chrome foil, which ties them together.

There are several series of paintings, including the large self portraits (ten at GBE); the images of which have been twice bisected, horizontally, and rearranged in exquisite corpse/random slot machine fashion.

One that stands out is the Christ crown of thorns/cartoonish eyes/bubble-gum-blowing mouth/bare shoulders. They are self-indulgent...but I guess that is the purpose of doing a self portrait...unless it is because no one else will sit for you.

But Pruitt has a lot of "friends," he shows off 1,344 of them in the Maccarone's window wall on Greenwich Street. They are locked in a 21x64 mural grid of their Facebook profile pictures, with their names identifying them. It is an interesting piece, especially since several of them are my "mutual friends."

Up on the wall, however, they suddenly seemed more his than mine, and perhaps they are. This is one of the more interesting works and one of several that originate from the Internet (like the collage of black and white cats with peculiar patches of black under their noses, which could only be amassed by a Google search: kittens + Hitler mustaches....or kitlers.)

Another piece, similar to the profile mural (and a great companion piece to it) covers one wall of GBE. From afar, it looks like a list of names, which will always allude to the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, DC designed by Maya Lin and any other display of names of fallen soldiers and civilians (especially since it is only a half a mile up Greenwich Street from Ground Zero).

The listing is, however, Pruitt's personal email account, which shows sender, subject and time/date, which starts on March 4, 2006 and is cut off by noon of September 3rd, 2010. Whether or not Pruitt agrees, I think this is a very profound piece.

Though it lacks the visual references of the Facebook portraits, it is much more personal (perhaps private is a better word).

Similar to a registry of the deceased, it is hard to know how to approach it without feeling invasive, especially since there is information that many of the senders would not want on display; not only the topics of the email but also frequency of the correspondence.

Each of these works could launch a lot of discussions about the Internet, information and privacy but Pruitt often changes the subject with sabulous paintings of Woody Allen and surfing pandas.

There are even sculptures of benign creatures made from industrial bundles of cardboard, bound for recycling. They have a formidable presence because of their mass, which contradicts their light-heartedness embodied in their big, cartoonish eyes and multiple, short (and cankled) legs with matching brand-spanking-new shoes.

These benevolent monsters occupy one room at Maccarone and seem to be happy you've come to see them. They are the closest thing to Pruitt's welcoming committee: ready to greet you (and a minivan full of Amish elders out to have a little fun).