Friday, July 29, 2011

Pow Wow

by Drew Martin

Before the wayward and speculating Europeans arrived in North America, art on this continent was decorative and ceremonial craft, which was very much a part of everyday life. Aspects such as tribal identity and preparation for various occasions had visually aesthetic details but more abstract ideas such as opposition to enemy oppression and the questioning of bloody sacrifices were not expressed in art.

The Spanish occupation of Mexico and the English settling of the East Coast of the United States created and fueled a new kind of inhumanity, which over the years has been responded to with emotive works in literature, music and the visual arts.

The difference between the histories of Mexico and the United States is enormous. The Spanish were conquistadores and from the beginning mixed with the natives. The situation up north was more complicated. The English "adventurers" did not want to be so roguish; they naively thought they would win over the natives and yet the end result was much more devastating to the indigenous population.

The profound divide was that the English not only oppressed the natives but also imported and dominated a completely different culture at the same time, the enslaved Africans. I am not sure if such an international human disaster with so many atrocious consequences has ever occurred in this tight a timeframe on one scrap of land: the establishment of Jamestown in 1607 obliterated "Indian" culture, slavery in the US started there with the arrival of the first Africans in 1619 and between those years tobacco was introduced to Western civilization, which stoked the plantation system and launched the most addictive and deadly habit of all time, smoking.

The dominant tribe of Tidewater Virginia, the Algonquins, were surprised by how submissive the first Africans were but could not comprehend their state; having been swiped from their own continent then packed on slave ships for the harsh transatlantic journey. The Africans had already lost everything and were all but dead on arrival.

The Algonquins skirmished with the English but also tolerated them to some degree, especially after the marriage of Pocahontas to John Rolfe, (ironically) the father of the tobacco industry. Shown to the right is a portrait of Pocahontas and their son Thomas Rolfe, painted during their trip to England, shortly before she died in 1617.

Following her extremely premature death, which contributed to increasing tensions with the English, the natives staged a massacre in 1622, which resulted in the wholsale slaughter of hundreds of colonists in a matter of minutes. England responded by sending over troops to comb through the woods of Virginia and kill every native in sight. Those who fled, moved west while the African slaves were left alone to bear the brunt of the English and their stifling labor system.

What followed was the worst of slavery and yet not only did the spirit of the slaves endure, it flourished like no other. The contributions to the arts by the descendants of the slaves is immeasurable and priceless. Much of the music, literature and artwork has a continued theme of struggle and opposition to established America, and rightly so. What might be felt as threatening is still the backlash of having been threatened. Likewise, Mexican artists have had a lot to say about the Western invasion. The first works that personally come to mind are the murals of Jose Clemente Orozco.

But what about native Americans? When I try to think about art that expresses their struggle I completely draw a blank. The images I connect to the "new world" atrocities are European, such as this hand colored engraving by the Swiss artist Matthäus Merian, from 1628, depicting the 1622 Massacre. For lack of anything else, I even gravitate back to the most obvious stereotypes of their art...beads, totem poles, headdresses, etc.

Why is this? Is it because so many of those tribes that would produce protest art were simply wiped out? Are there a lot of native artists that are dismissed by a trendy art world? Or is it something much more philosophical...that these cultures without written languages at the time or art beyond patterns and symbolic forms were not culturally positioned to express their woes in art. Or, even now, by doing putting on a show for the art world, would mean the kind of submission and compromise they have so ardently fought against for the past 400 years? Perhaps it is also because unlike the one-way fate of the Africans, the native tribes were already fragmented and locked in power struggles (which is why many of the lesser tribes aided the English because they feared the Algonquins) and much of the demise was due to their own immune systems, unable to cope with the diseases brought over by the Europeans.

Before the 1622 Massacre, the natives for the most part lived independently of the newcomers but would "show up for work" on the colonial one hundreds (precursors to plantations). They had breakfast with the English and then went to the fields...this is why the first attack was so successful, it was orchestrated to happen at the start of breakfast on Good Friday of 1622, at point blank.

Although the natives were fascinated by the phenomenon of writing they had no use for it with generations of codes and communicative nuances in place. On the other hand, the African slaves lived closer to the English/Americans. The English language was under their noses and their being denied its power made literature an explosive medium for telling their story in slave narratives and all the great novels that evolved from them...mainly because it entered the quiet reading rooms of the early Americans with a bang.

Language played a big part in slavery. The multitude of African dialects meant that there was no unified African language, so any hope of solidarity required a lingua franca, which had to be English...but first and alternatively it was song; invisible, free and undeniable. The visual arts took the longest to develop. The slaves' tools were just for labor. Art is obvious and hard to conceal. Additionally, art at that time was a leisurely pastime and reserved for the privileged documentation of pedigree.

Writing has a visual identity but you need to be close to fine print to understand the message and it takes time to decipher a passage. The message of a graphic radiates from its source and is immediate. This is where Kara Walker comes in, and is why she had such an impact with her early work. It was all thought, sung and written before but never so visual. It was an expression in hiding that did not come out until it was safe. Now it is applauded but if it were made in the time which she references it would have had fatal consequences.

I know there must be many native Americans who have written, sung and created art about their own injustices but where are those with the status and recognition of Orozco and the Walker? A disadvantage the native American artists face is that people really love the stereotypes. The image of the native warrior holds a special place in the world's mind. It is romanticized even when adulterated by European influences, such as with horses...pre-Columbian native Americans had never seen horses and did not know what to make of them at first sight; sometimes mistaking a mounted rider and his steed as one monstrous creature.

Most people around the world think the natives all wore headdresses and lived in tee-pees and ran around with tomahawks in their hands. Not only do they think this, but they believe they know it so when something disrupts that image, they do not want to accept it. Such images are popularized by the movie industry as well as staged photographs from the beginning of the 20th Century and are quite different from the original concepts of native Americans. At first, the imaginations of the old world were fed by the images of Jacques le Moyne de Morgues (1533–1588) a French artist who traveled to Florida, mapped the region and made a series of botanical illustrations and depictions of the Amerindians. Le Moyne eventually returned to Europe after relationships with the natives soured and he escaped a Spanish invasion. The torch was then carried by other European artists such as the Belgium artist Theodorus de Bry (1528 – 1598) and his sons who never visited the Americas and whose works were often adjusted to please buyers.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Shape Shifting

by Drew Martin

In the Star Trek series Deep Space Nine, René Auberjonois plays the character Odo who is a shape shifter/changeling. The natural state of this metamorphic species is a shimmering, goopy liquid. Amusingly, his kind refers to humanoids as "solids."

In the Star Trek tradition, Odo is the in-need-of-a-hug show outcast, as was Spock in the original series, as was Data in Next Generation. Unlike these predecessors, ornery Odo is not a logical counterweight or friendly android; he is cantankerous and dismissive.

Not only is Odo the least human of these pivotal characters but he knows nothing about his origin. He serves as the constable on the station and transforms himself in order to spy on suspects and to access areas undetected. He can be a mouse, a bag...even a framed painting.

In the episode The Search, Odo finds his home on a rogue planet and meets others like him. After a brief introduction, he is left alone in an arboretum. When he is rejoined by a maternal figure, she asks him if he has made good use of his time in that garden. He is confused and asks her what she means. She comments that he has been among the "solids" too long and that he should take the shape of the various plants around him in order to understand them better; to assume the form of something is to know it.

This idea has a wonderful extrapolation to art, especially sculpture. I imagine Odo wandering around museums emulating Rodin, Canova, Oldenburg, Calder, Moore and Kapoor.

Michelangelo said he was freeing the human forms that already existed in the blocks of marble. If this sounds a bit too romantic now, it was a conceptual leap at the time.

With Odo in mind, perhaps a great sculpture could be viewed as the transformation of the artist himself or herself into a three dimensional object for our benefit. Additionally, it would be an interesting way to interact with a sculpture. Put aside the analysis, art history and any attempt to figure out what it is trying to "say" and just imagine yourself taking on its properties.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Shattering Boundaries: Grace Hartigan

by Drew Martin

I just watched Grace Hartigan: Shattering Boundaries. It is a documentary about Hartigan, who was one of the first artists to recognize the quality and vitality of abstract expressionism and was part of a community of poets and painters in New York City that went beyond collaboration. Her own work merged figuration and the methodology from abstract expression.

Hartigan (March 28, 1922 — November 15, 2008) claims in the film, that the large scale of American abstract expressionist paintings came from movies...seeing the large heads on the silverscreen, which she recalls as early as 5, had a profound effect on visual artists.

Hartigan posed nude for 95 cents an hour at the Art Student League to make ends meet but stopped because she said it was difficult to discuss and defend her work while naked.

Hartigan contacted and visited Jackson Pollock after his first drip show and commented...

There was then that tremendous feeling that there wasn't just that activity, and you weren't just making an object. That whatever it is in the unknown in the self is deeply involved with the work.

Hartigan was very much a part of that tight knit artist community in New York City. It was said that there was a struggle of ego and insecurity. Ego, because these artists had stolen the art world fire from Paris and felt as if they were changing the world. Insecurity, because they wondered if it really mattered.

When asked in the more commercial era of Warhol how she would like to be called the mother of Pop Art she replied...

I would rather be the precursor of a movement that I hate than a second generation of a movement that I love.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Form & Light, Inform & Delight

by Drew Martin

The film Helvetica is a must-see for any graphic designer. A movie about a font may sound painful to sit through but it is captivating. This weekend I saw another film, which I think is even more important for young designers to watch: Milton Glaser, To Inform & Delight.

The title of the film comes from the 1st Century Roman Poet Horace's statement that the purpose of art is to inform and delight. The opening credits introduce the words form and light before changing into the Horatian title: the play on words is perfect for what follows.

If you are not familiar with Milton Glaser, you just do not know it. He is the artist who came up with the logo for the I Love New York slogan.

As Glaser explains, the project was conceived during a time in the mid 1970s when New York City was going downhill, fast. The new, upbeat saying contributed to the reverse of the decline of morale. The success of the logo, he offers, is because it is a visual puzzle, which makes the person viewing it remember it better than being told directly. Simple as it is, the combination of text and the symbol has to be figured out.

Glaser was one of the first designers to part with the Swiss-informed commercial art world. His post-modern sensibilities embraced previous styles and made them relevant again. He helped found New York magazine and was also behind Gloria Steinem's Ms. magazine. His approach to the press was that of service journalism.

As a designer, his first love is drawing, which he explains, is a way of understanding the world and of thinking. He speaks about the balance between solitary creation and collaborative work, the latter having a dancing partner. I especially liked one moment when he was talking about a poster he did for the School of Visual Arts. He tossed together a bunch of stickers he did for the school. The edges curled and because he liked the effect, he had them photographed this way. He explained that he could have reached a similar effect on the computer but he would not have stumbled upon it as a physical act.

It is a comment that seems appropriate for other interests he enjoys as much as creating graphic art. He loves music and feels that his visual nods to music and musicians can evoke the response that music does. Likewise, he loves food and compares preparing meals to having the same kind of joy as drawing.

A well known graphic artist referred to him as the total artist. A friend explained that Glaser's hands have no resistance and his drawing is automatic, immediate, complete, unmediated and instantaneous. Glaser is just as well known and admired for his articulation. He speaks about the role of artists and design as a way to interact with people just as certain cultures participated in gift giving in order to pacify each other. Similarly, as with the presents, the absence of the gifts of art results in conflict and "people killing each other."

It makes sense that Glaser created the I Heart New York logo because he is perhaps one of the greatest and most authentic New Yorkers. He was educated at the Fiorello H. La Guardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts as well as Cooper Union. While he reminisces about what a great education he received he is also quick to point out that New York City is one of the best places to be educated simply as a citizen because of all the free events and lectures and the wealth of the museums.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

A Beautiful Mind

by Drew Martin

A picture in a magazine caught my eye a couple months ago. It was of a boy lying on the grass with a vacuum cleaner hose arced over his head. He holds one end at his mouth and the other end at his ear. It is an intriguing picture because of his tranquility and the soft, echoing sounds it creates in your mind when you look at it, but it also a little unsettling.

This picture accompanied an article about autism and is part of a New York Times article with a slideshow that focuses on the boy's condition. The pictures were taken by the father, a professional commercial photographer, of his son. The father approached the project as a way to understand his son's quirks and the young boy contributed to the planning and executing of the shots.

The Aspergers and Autism community blog,, shares my thoughts on the Times' piece that it...

"... is a little more "autistic children are trapped in a cruel world of darkness" than I would like to see in this century..."

The inherent stillness and isolation of the photography has a lot to do with this and the formality of the shoot reinforces a clinical label. Unfortunately, most media representations of unique minds tend to either exaggerate, caricaturize or elevate them to a genius/savant level.

While it is true some autistic kids are cognitively years ahead of their peers and make brilliant musical and artistic connections, I would hesitate to join the camp that proposes autism is a sign of human evolution. I believe that people who display autistic tendencies have greatly contributed to the advancement of civilization and culture with their insights on humanity, arts, sciences and engineering but we are not witnessing the birth of a new species.

The idea of autism as a kind of mental superiority has been criticized as neurelitism, that is, the view that autistics are somehow superior to neurotypicals. This discussion focuses on the individual character blazing new neural paths. If there is progress with our species it is perhaps more about the social aspects that require more parenting and schooling and better parenting and schooling. An autistic child who is diagnosed early should receive much more attention and more of an education than the average kid. This would seem to be consistent with the progress our mammalian bonding and childcare. After all, we do not lay eggs in the sand and then scurry back into the sea. The emotional ties of our kind are forged through long gestation and rearing periods.

So what does autism creatively look like? While Stephen Wiltshire is well known for his detailed cityscapes, I think it should be emphasized that these sophisticated works are the final product of someone with a great visual memory but they do not shed much light on his thought process.

I find autistic sensibilities more accessible in the work of an artist such as Piet Mondrian. The artists most commonly assumed to have been autistic include Leonardo da Vinci, Vincent van Gogh and Andy Warhol but I do not think it would be too far a stretch to say that every famous artist, as well as noted scientist, inventor, writer and musician is somewhere on the spectrum.

Autistic and artistic seem at times to be interchangeable.

If you listen to an autistic person explain the singularity and focus of the moment, it sounds familiar to not only how you feel when you are absorbed with the inner world of creation but also when you are immersed in someone else's work and your connection to real-time is severed.

The most common state of art is the finished product but we also can talk about art as a process, an experience, a concept and a performance. All of these are intentional. Even the per-chance dada-ists and their successive action painters were intentional. So are the l'Art Brut creators: they all set out to create.

To understand autism and art, it is important to consider the unintentional: associations made simply to establish relationships and order, which, to an observer may be received as a higher function.

In my long, narrow closet is a stretch of colorful banded carpet made by my aunt-in-law in the Tatra mountains of Poland. I came home the other day to find my three year old's cars lined up by color along the stripes. It was a subtle, beautiful gesture and yet it had nothing to do with an idea of art or decoration. It simply seemed like the right thing to do. I think this example is a nice play on being "on the spectrum" because it is indeed a colorful experience.