Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Buttering Up The Iron Lady

by Drew Martin
Butter is an ancient material - thousands of years in the making. The word originates from Greek - bouturon: bous, cow + turos, cheese. Butter has been used not only for food, but also as medicine and as a hair product. Tibetan lamas have used yak butter for hundreds of years as a medium for large-scale and colorful sculptures and facades (pictured left). According to a legend dating back to 641, a Buddha statue was brought for a royal wedding but there were no fresh flowers to adorn it so they were made from butter. I just saw The Iron Lady in the theater, which has a minor butter theme. It is a diet concern, a staple and an economic indicator. It is also a metaphor for the mind...minding the butter and the former prime minister's dementia. The elderly Margaret Thatcher tells the hallucination of her deceased husband, who is having breakfast with her, not to put so much butter on his toast. A young Thatcher (née Roberts) leaves her family's hiding spot during a WWII Luftwaffe air raid to cover the butter in their corner grocery shop. And finally, later in her political career, when one of her party members suggests she is out of touch with the people, she lists a few brands of butter and margarine and how much they cost to prove she is down to earth.

Saturday, January 28, 2012


by Drew Martin
This week's My Favorite Mistake page in Newsweek is by composer Philip Glass and is about his having two pairs of children with two wives, three decades apart. He writes about the notion of the solitary artist, spending time with his children as the finest moments in his life, and how his second family gave him a second chance to be a more involved father.

The mention of Glass influenced me to watch Naqoyqatsi: Life as War, which is accompanied by his music. Glass also created the scores for the first two films in this Qatsi trilogy - Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi. These films look at the contrast of modern and traditional life but Naqoyqatsi examines the transformation of a natural environment to a technological landscape.

The film starts with the Tower of Babel and gorgeous pans of dilapidated and empty buildings, and then moves on to glimpses of anything and everything (most of it in slow motion): athletes, soldiers, binary code, endless fractals, body scans, atomic bombs, happy people, sad people, traffic, factories, data centers, motherboards, trading floors, satellites, wax museum celebrities, assassination attempts, wildlife on the move, uprisings, police crackdowns, and ends with skydivers and stars.

The film is so stylized, digitally manipulated and intensely edited that I felt detached from the theme and it simply became a montage of images that reminded me of Czesław Miłosz’s poem Tidings:

Of earthly civilization what shall we say?
That it was a system of colored spheres cast in smoked glass,
Where a luminescent liquid thread kept winding and unwinding.
Or that it was an array of sunburnt palaces
Shooting up from a dome with massive gates
Behind which walked a monstrosity without a face.
That every day lots were cast, and that whoever drew low
Was marched there as sacrifice: old men, children, young boys and young girls.
Or we may say otherwise: that we lived in a golden fleece,
In a rainbow net, in a cloud cocoon
Suspended from the branch of a galactic tree,
And our net was woven from the stuff of signs,
Hieroglyphs for the eye and ear, amorous rings.
A sound reverberated inward, sculpturing our time,
The flicker, flutter, twitter of our language.
For from what could we weave the boundary
Between within and without, light and abyss,
If not from ourselves, our own warm breath,
And lipstick and gauze and muslin,
From the heartbeat whose silence makes the world die?
Or perhaps we’ll say nothing of earthly civilization.
For nobody really knows what it was.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Isles of Tiles

by Drew Martin
When I was kid I thought islands floated around the oceans and that you could swim under them. Islands are paradoxes...beautiful getaways and prisons for castaways. Unlike other chunks of land (deserts, mountain ranges, plateaus, plains, etc.) an island is not an island unless it is dwarfed by a vast body of water. This relationship of dry land and water is very much like my basement, which sits only a few inches above the water table. When that rises with the winter snow-melt and the spring downpours, my cellar floor is inundated with ground water. It is a very stressful time because I depend on a sump pump in a well to remove the water. If the water rises too quickly and overtakes the pump or if a storm knocks out the electricity then the water will rise a few feet and kill the boiler, hot water heater and appliances. Even if the water is constantly removed, the concrete floor can be wet for days. A neighbor has been giving me scrap tiles for projects so I started making tile islands around the basement. I do it in part as an art project but at the same time these elevated areas are placed in areas that I frequent and will hopefully remain dry. (Click here to see a video of one of the larger and more formal tile islands - in it I am cleaning off extra grout)

Thursday, January 26, 2012


by Drew Martin
Basements are scary places. It is where gangs of spiders hang out. In films, they are equated with unspeakable perversions - dungeons of death. When I hear about people like the Austrian man who raised an incestuous family with his kept daughter in his basement unbeknownst to his wife upstairs I am horrified but also curious about the actual space. Do they not have periodic house inspections for tax and code purposes? I have a reoccurring dream that underneath my house is an endless cavern or multiple levels of an underground structure. No one is ever in these spaces but me, alone, exploring. I have an interesting house. It is a bit of a shack that was built 130 years ago so there is an old, stone foundation, which has a couple newer crawl spaces with cinder-block foundations. The walls were falling apart last year so I spent six months rebuilding them with stone and more than 2,000 pounds of concrete, which I mixed by hand. One of the walls had a hole that went into the adjoining crawl space. I dug into it deep enough to get in and store things but I originally had ambitions to turn it into a gallery or speak-easy. Pictured here is an arch and "secret" door I made for the hole.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Like a Rock

by Drew Martin
A big medical office building is going up across the street from my house. The excavators dug a huge, deep pit for the foundation. At one point, when the hole was rectangular, perfectly flat at the bottom and tidy all around, a lone, big rock stuck up out of the ground; the tip of a boulder the size of a car. There was something mesmerizing about this scene. Here was a rock that had been buried under soil and clay for hundreds of years, maybe much longer. It reminded me of a Zen garden. It was not surrounded by pebbles raked by Buddhist monks, but packed earth with a rippled pattern of metal tank treads. I thought it would be nice if the builders would leave the rock and just pour the foundation around it so there would be this surprise in the basement. One late afternoon I decided to go out and photograph it but the sun had set and it was very dark. So I set up my tripod and because I was shooting black and white film I overrode the shutter speed and exposed the film for almost twenty seconds. The result is the image here. The next day the workers showed up with jack hammers and backhoes and broke the rock up into little pieces and put it on the side to be carted away later. The ground was flat.

The Broken Vase

by Drew Martin
It is bulk-trash pickup today in my town. It is a day when I should be blindfolded, bound with zip-ties and locked in a windowless room. Bulk-trash pickup day happens twice a month and you can put anything bulky out on the curbside and the town garbage collectors will pick it up and toss it in their truck. I live in a nice town so people throw out nice things, often because they are bored of them but usually because there is something broken. I never go out of my way for it - some people drive around in pick-up trucks the night before and collect everything they can - but I certainly have had absurd bounty: electric lawn mowers, cross-country skis, museums pedestals, etc. This morning I was running through the hills of my town. It was still dark, which is a time you should definitely not trash-pick because it is hard to assess the condition of something. Midway through my run I saw a huge, broken Greek vase. It is entirely kitsch but it was also such a great big sculptural object. So I picked it up and ran about two miles with it home and placed it on my art/junk wall outside my house.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Dating Dorian Gray

by Drew Martin
A couple years ago, I swapped computer assistance for French classes. It turned into more than just helping a lady revamp her website: I also helped her set up online dating profiles. She was in her 60's, looked like she was in her 70's, posted that she was in her 50's and was looking for men in their 40's. She would scoff at anyone nearing her years. Although she was not realistic about her age, she was candid about the situation. "I hope you never have to do this" she said to me in a deeply sad voice. Yesterday I was reading the Get Naked page of Time Out New York and there was a 59-year-old man who wrote in that he was passing himself off as a 37-year-old guy to his 20-year-old boyfriend. I never understood this. It is flattering to be told you look younger than you are and to feel like a twenty-something as you pass through your middle years because you exercise, eat well and have good genes but why on Earth would you want to set yourself up to appear to be a poorly aging younger person as opposed to a timeless older person? If anything, the latter means you hold the secret to extended youth.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Portrait with a Low Brow: Whistler's Mother was a "Mad Old Cow"

by Drew Martin
In the film Bean, Mr. Bean is a narcoleptic sitter at the Royal National Gallery. He is gladly shipped off to America when the Grierson Gallery of Los Angeles seeks an expert to receive Whistler's famous painting known at Whistler's Mother from the Musee d'Orsay. The painting is actually titled Arrangement in Grey and Black. Bean is anything but a specialist and is mistaken as a quirky genius. When asked about his position, he says "I sit in the corner and look at the paintings." The curator is impressed by this simple approach for a scholar. The movie is full of lowbrow antics: Bean sneezes on the head in the painting and tries to clean it up with paint thinner but ends up dissolving it, which he then replaces with a cartoon face. He fixes the disaster by swapping the damaged canvas with a poster. In his speech at the unveiling, Bean offers that it is a large painting, which is good because if it were a small painting - microscopic - no one would be able to see it, and that is about family, which he has discovered on his trip is the most important thing. He says that even though Whistler's mother was a "mad old cow" he was still thoughtful enough to spend the time to paint her picture.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Comic Book Confidential

by Drew Martin
I watched Comic Book Confidential online today, which is a film that surveys the history of the comic book medium, starting with the hero characters created during World War II. The movie is from 1988 but it is dated in all the right ways. For one thing it is a time when the comic book was still a comic book. A young Art Spiegelman, who is interviewed in the film, had published his first completed volume of Maus only two years prior. Although the label graphic novel had been around for some time before, it was with Maus that I recall the term got traction in the general public, mainly because the content about the Holocaust was too grave to refer to as a comic. Along with Spiegelman, the film features more than twenty artists including Frank Miller, Stan Lee, Will Eisner, Robert Crumb and William Gaines - who says his father invented the comic book from the Sunday comics. One of the treats of the film is that several of the artists read from their works. Eisner succinctly expresses the draw to creating comics,

"I can tell a whole story at two levels. I can deal in writing and I can deal in acting. It has a completeness to it that satisfies me."

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Project Light

by Drew Martin
Projected and transmitted light plays an important part in two shows, a stone's throw apart, in the West Village. Uri Aran (at Gavin Brown) uses multiple video projections, a slide projector and one small, black and white Spectra television (pictured left - top) to display his content. David Lamelas (at Maccarone) projects light in a very different way. He uses old movie projectors - one of them points at the glass doors of the entrance to the gallery. The other one is turned in the opposite direction and projects a modest patch of light on a white wall - pure light (pictured left - bottom). It is as if the two artists were given the same class assignment to use projections of light in their work and each of them executed the concept with very different interpretations. Aran idles in front of his camera - listing "cuisines of the world" in one of his small rear-projections. In another similar rear-projection he describes ten soiled balls hammocked beneath his talking image. The detached Aran dunks a tea bag and fumbles with cookies in one of the larger wall projections. The television loops a scene of a mother and son snuggling while the mother strokes his hair. The carousel projector with 80-slides shows details of Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street with cookies. Cookies are a major theme here. They are childish doubloons and symbolize home as well as the crumbling fragility of boyhood. In one part of another large projection, which has a whole gallery room dedicated to it, Aran repeats "Look mom. Look at that." He says it in his adult voice but with the tone of a child who is desperate to get his mother's attention. Melancholic music and table-displays of scrappy, unsophisticated objects all work together to create a very troubled feeling of loss and insecurity. There is something very sad about Aran's installation...not depressing just neglected...like he is waiting for his mother to come to him with tea and cookies and to clean up his mess in the gallery. Considering Aran's show next door, Lamelas' use of movie projectors is very poignant. While Aran seeks attention and projects something like a substitution of home movies, Lamelas projects the absence of them. There is no film, no image, just light. The projectors make their metallic ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta sounds, the light flutters and the extended arms, which would normally hold the film reels, seem pointless now, especially the rear arms, which spin effortlessly. The light hitting the glass front doors temporarily blinds the visitor and the light hitting the wall is without incident unless you pass by it, which would then cast your shadow on the wall in the frame of the lit rectangle.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Common Vision of Churches and Casinos

by Drew Martin
I met up with my friend John Coburn after work today. John is an artist I have been following for a couple years and the first person I had a studio visit with as an arts writer, which is when I found out that he knew much more about art than I did. In 2010, I interviewed him (Bring It On: An Interview with John Coburn) and reviewed his show Fairlane Marauder.  John works as a decorative painter at EverGreene Architectural Arts, a painting studio dedicated to restoration, conservation and decorative painting. I stopped in tonight to take a look. I was amazed by the large spaces, huge paintings and supplies everywhere. Apparently a lot of the work is for churches and casinos, and many times it is difficult to tell which of the two destinations a painting will call home. One set of canvases being worked on (not by John), which I found interesting was an enormous painting of the sun shining through heavenly clouds. Taped to the wall, next to it, was a source for the work: a photograph from 9/11 of the sun setting through the dust of Ground Zero kicked up in the wreckage. I made two fly-on-the-wall videos when I was there: one of a religious painting on the wall opposite the sunburst and one of an artist drawing. There is also an interesting video EverGreene has online about historic finishes investigations.

A Well-Designed Future

by Drew Martin
Yesterday I watched the documentary Objectified, which is about the conception and production of things. It is a slickly made film, produced and edited with an attention to detail worthy of the industrial designers interviewed. In one scene, the retired Braun designer, Dieter Rams, trims a bonsai in his garden in Kronberg. He says that good design should be innovative, useful, aesthetic, understandable, honest, unobtrusive, long-lived, consistent in every detail, environmentally friendly...and "last but not least, good design is as little design as possible." The documentary returns to Rams at the end for a slightly apocalyptic comment...."The value, and especially the legitimization of design will be, in the future, measured more in terms of how it can enable us to survive, and I don't think this is an exaggeration, to survive on this planet." Rams points to Apple as today's best design firm, which prompts an interview with Jonathan Ive, Apple's Senior Vice President - Industrial Design, who speaks about undesigning and getting design out of the way. Karim Rashid questions why we need to keep revisiting the archetype; why for instance, does a digital camera try to reference a film camera, which had been designed for the way film loads. This documentary addresses cradle-to-cradle design issues of sustainability. What I found most interesting were the designers who spoke about design beyond products; using design to understand situations and to design solutions.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

First Impressions: A Look at Homepages of 40 Museums

by Drew Martin
I am embarking on making a website for The Museum of Peripheral Art. I had one before but I took it down just before I turned my attention to this blog. I thought I should first take a look at the websites of internationally renowned museums as well as a few that I had good memories visiting. Museums come in all shapes and sizes and have very different revenue sources but on the Internet the opportunities to present an institution is a fair game. Some organizations do a decent job of representing who they are, while others fail miserably. A museum website should embody the heart and soul of a museum. Presented here are thumbnails of "print screens" of 40 museums, the majority are in the United States, with a large number in New York, but these also include museums from Australia, China, Czech, England, France, Germany, Holland, Hungary, India, Israel, Japan, Qatar, Russia, Spain and Switzerland. I just realized that I completely forgot to look at Italian museums' websites (of course they would know how to put on a good show) but when I clicked on the website for the Uffizi, I was more than disappointed. My comments are beneath each set of four images:

I like simple homepages without too much clutter and when they give you an impression of what they are about. I think it was important for the New Museum to show some of its gallery space with an exhibit. The Metropolitan and the Louvre - both classy. The Rubin, OK, I know I am heading East.

These are examples with an urge to tell you more about themselves and they do a good job of it, each in a way that represents the respective organization well. There is a trend now in website design towards cleaner looks but I like the richness of these pages. There is information but they do not seem informational.

These try to do the same thing but have a bit of a breakdown in layout. The Rijks kills it on the lower left in the same way that the Tate's right "shop" navigation bar and bottom-center "follow us" section seem misplaced. MAD overuses its logo and MoMA looks like it is selling ad space and only whispers its name.

There is something wrong with all of these but they all have something going for them. The Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney is too busy and the top navigation is quirky (perhaps too cute) but I actually found it amusing...while it is loading a little janitor is mopping the top header and then people walk into the header and assume a place in the navigation. When you mouse over each one, he or she waves and then a speech bubble pops up over him or her, with subcategories. I like it because, starting with the janitor, it shows you that the museum is about the staff too. I really liked the Prado's homepage when I first saw it because it looked clean and organized but each time I go back to it, it looks more and more boring. Although The National Museum of Moder Art, Tokyo's page is almost void of images, I do like how they make it super clear what they are about Art - Craft - Film. The Virginia Museum of Fine Art has a gorgeous new addition and an impressive collection but this page does not show that and it has banner overkill.

These examples are quite nice and they are all in the same family. They are simple but a little safe. I was expecting a little more of a punch from The Warhol, MOCA - Los Angeles is what I expected, the Städel's site is clean and organized like the museum and the Tel Aviv Museum of Art is very similar, but I have to admit - its use of a great exterior shot of the museum piques my interest in going there. It looks beautiful and modern.

The site for the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi has some clunky navigation but it actually do the best job of all the sites showcasing its collection. I immediately know what I am in for, which I like. I think if the Getty cleaned up its header, it would work better. The Art Institute of Chicago has too much going on and should show its new modern wing by Renzo Piano. The Newseum is the only site I included here that is not an art museum so in all fairness I cannot compare it as such. I just thought it was interesting to take a look at a museum based on mass media.

The Guggenheim commits the same act of design murder by inflating its name. It is busy and boring at the same time. SFMOMA's site would be better if it did not use a Flash build. Otherwise, I actually like how simple and simply different it is...it is growing on me. The Museum of Islamic Arts in Doha is a fantastic building by I. M. Pei and it should be shown off in the header instead of a bad, stylized rendering of it. This last one here pains me. I visited the Collection de l'Art Brut in Lausanne, Switzerland in 1992. I remember it being small but unique . This website des not recall its fascinating collection for me and it has the name/logo in the footer when it should be in the header.
They get worse: the Museum of Contemporary Art, Shanghei's website is too amateurish, apparently I should bring my MasterCard to Budapest if I want to look at art, the National Museum in Prague's website looks like they are still using a template from the 1990's and Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw took a bad logo and made it huge but then the use of it in the upper left of the website looks like it was photocopied from the back of a discarded tram ticket.

These last four are crimes against humanity. I remember being awed by the Ishtar gate preserved at the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin when I saw it as a young man. This site looks like a form. I spent a week next to the the Dalí Theatre-Museum in Figueres about that same time in 1992. How could you go wrong designing a site about Dalí's work? I toured the Hermitage when St. Petersburg was still Leningrad and was blown away by it. The site should simply loop the trailer for Russian Ark - the movie with the longest "shot" in film history and the first feature film created in a single take, with 2,000 actors bringing to life 300 years of Russian history in 33 rooms of the Hermitage. I have never been to the Pompidou but it was in all my art history books - Piano's building turned inside out...this homepage is dead.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Eva Hesse: Picking up the Pieces

by Drew Martin
There is an interesting talk online,
Drawing as Primary Medium, by the curator Catherine de Zegher about Eva Hesse, a brilliant artist who has a cult following that still mourns her untimely death and keeps her unique work alive in caring hands.

Hesse was born in Hamburg in 1936 but was sent to America via England when she was two to flee Nazi Germany. Her parents split when she was eight and her mother committed suicide when she was ten. Hesse died of a brain tumor at the age of 34. With this background it is common to describe Hesse's art as work about loss.

De Zegher relates the act of drawing as the outward gesture to another person as well as the first exploration - departing from one's mother. She is not the most engaging speaker but she is intimate with Hesse on many levels. De Zegher speaks of Hesse's work as the hybridization of sculpture and drawing and a union of opposites that can never be together; black and white, rejection and incorporation.

De Zegher says that Hesse "picked up" drawing in two ways...raising it from a subservient position in a painting and sculpture-dominated art world and by literally picking up materials for her work from the floor of a defunct textile factory in a suburb of Essen, which she and her husband Tom Doyle occupied as studio space when they returned to her homeland for a period. Hesse made an attempt to translate her drawings into paintings but it did not work for her. The reason for this was that her drawings were more like sculpture, which is why she developed such a natural relationship between the different disciplines. Hesse's work was pioneering because she used materials that were still ignored in the arts. De Zegher says that 70% of the artists she interviews mention Hesse as an influence because of her complex thinking around space, process and connectivity. She speaks for Hesse when she quotes Richard Tuttle in the talk:

"I ask the material to tell me what it knows and then I humbly listen. The payoff is greater than the humiliation."

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Create Dangerously

by Drew Martin
I recently watched an online lecture by Edwidge Danticat titled: Create Dangerously - The Immigrant Artist at WorkShe expresses that writers belong to their readers and are honorary citizens of the countries where they are read and that self doubt is part of the acclimatization of every immigrant, which is the staple for artists. "The immigrant artist shares with all other artists a desire to remake the world even if the world is full of xenophobia, sexism, racism and just plain meanness." It is not a delicate lecture. She begins with the execution of two young talented Haitian men: "Their blood on the wall was the collaborative work of a dictator and henchmen." She speaks of the need for convincing each other in extreme conditions that art can be created, finding a balance between silence and art. She speaks of Albert Camus - creating with a sense of political responsibility and a revolt against silence. Danticat questions how writers and artists find each other in dangerous times; when reading and writing is an act of disobedience. She says "What joins writers, is that somewhere, if not now, someone might risk his or her life to read us." She quotes Osip Mandelshtam, the Russian poet and essayist: "Only in Russia poetry is respected – it gets people killed."

Butterflies on My Mind

by Drew Martin
Butterflies have been on my mind. It started with a documentary about a woodworker who used butterfly dovetails and with images of an installation of butterfly cut-outs by my friend Kirk Maxson (pictured - left). Yesterday I drew a butterfly hanging sets of her wings out to dry and I just woke up from a peculiar dream about a butterfly. I was visiting a couple in Piermont, New York. The husband had just invented illuminated clothes hangers for dark closets, which could be disassembled and used as shoelaces for runners. They looked particularly similar to the clear noodles I ate last night, but with a red glow. I was there for an experiment: to transfer my mind to a butterfly. I was reluctant to do so and thought, "Who will take care of my body while I am away?" When I entered the room for the procedure, I was surprised. In place of a surgical suite, there was a dining room with tables of well-dressed guests waiting to witness this. There was a table for me to lie on and some kind of apparatus to monitor me. I needed some time to think about this so I excused myself and left for the bathroom. I closed the door and woke up in my bed at home.

The Compleat Sculptor

by Drew Martin
One of my favorite escapes in New York is to go the basement of The Compleat Sculptor, Inc. at 90 Vandam Street between Hudson Street and Greenwich Street in SoHo. It is only a couple blocks from me but it feels like a world away. The above-ground store has traditional sculpting supplies and modern casting materials for the "Sculptor, Prop Maker, Prototype Maker, Conservator, Police/FBI/Law Enforcer, Model Maker, Restorer, Architect, Body Caster, Display/Window Designer, 3D Mosaicist, Scenic Artist, Fine Art Student, Archaeologist, Special Effects Artist, Mold-Maker..." The basement is a cavernous open space with stone and wood from all over the world. Sometimes I go there to buy sculpting tools or large boxes of air-drying clay. My favorite corner of their cellar is the 99-cent/pound pot-luck bin where you can find abandoned stone fragments such as my favorite piece "Cantaloupe" (pictured left). This is a roll-up-one's-sleeves artist's place that offers classes in stone carving, clay sculpture, portrait drawing and mold making. Click here to see someone at work in one of the studio spaces.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The History of Light

by Drew Martin
Even though we can see starlight from billions of years ago, light is fresh: we can create it with chemical, nuclear and mechanical means. With the quest for fire, humans discovered a powerful combination of heat and light. The electric lightbulb lit up civilization around 1880. Motion pictures were first projected in 1895. The first installation of a neon sign was 1912, the same year as the first red-green electric traffic light. In Times Square, the first large electric billboard was installed in 1917 and the first running electric display was installed in 1928. The first television screen was created in 1923 and the first LCD computer monitor was developed in 1972. When I think about light, I wonder just how long plain light will last in its simplest use - to illuminate, and how it will be replaced by informational light. Could, for example, headlights of cars contain signatures that would provide law enforcement with registration information, car-make and driver identification that could be picked up by a scanner. For that matter, could headlights even project images, like a drive-in-movie-for-one. Likewise, could street lamps also project or relay information about lost cats, garbage pickup, and parking. Light has always been a key to our existence but now it is a valuable resource for energy and information. 

Monday, January 9, 2012

Kids Doing Cartwheels in Sri Lanka

by Drew Martin
In 2011, Katie Humphries, a New York-based photographer, asked me to speak to the students of her P.S. 3 after-school photography class about my UNDER THE HOOD: New York project that was displayed at the New York Public Library. I also spent some time discussing how I professionally use photography and showed the young students progress photos of many iconic buildings in New York and spoke about photoshoots, use of images in advertising and materials, and archiving. I was really impressed by Katie's commitment to this class. This is her nature and the direction of her creative energy. She recently returned from a trip Sri Lanka as part of The cARTwheel Initiative, a not-for-profit organization that travelled there to work with Tamil children in worn-torn regions. They created four art workshops (photography, painting and collage, graphic design, and music) in three schools: Mallavi Central College, Pandiyankulum, and Poonekary. The program included Tamil students between the ages of 10-17. The project culminated with a school community exhibition and a show in Colombo as well.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Origami May Save Your Life

by Drew Martin
I watched a fascinating documentary yesterday about origami: Between the Folds: Exploring Origami. The film is incredibly well constructed because of the way it takes you deeper and deeper into the world of origami. It starts off with representational origami and the realism achieved by origami artists such as Michael LaFosse, who is the only origami maker who also makes his own paper and he makes the paper with a piece in mind, i.e. double-sided black and yellow for a toucan. Then there is Dr. Robert J. Lang who holds two Caltech degrees and gave up a full-time gig at Caltech to pursue origami. As an art form, origami is unique; it is a metamorphic art, as opposed to additive or subtractive art. Its secrets and beauty are in the folding, which its followers explain is everywhere: the folding of fabric, sound waves, mountains, galaxies, DNA...everything. Some origami makers say it is improvisational like jazz, while others claim it is more like sonatas or fugues. Lang, who gives his work opus numbers, offers an analogy between music and the laws of paper, "What you can accomplish is strongly governed by mathematical laws of music; the harmonic ratios between the notes and rhythms." And this is where the documentary gets even more interesting. Anyone who is anyone in the origami world agrees, Akira Yoshizawa (1911-2005) was the master who took the basics of school-kid origami and made it an art form and a science. Dr. Thomas Hull, a mathematics professor at Merrimack College, speaks about math as all of its subjects together and says that origami exhibits this including: geometry, number theory, abstract algebra, linear algebra with matrices, and "weird-bizarre" geometry like geometry of the sphere. Dr. Erik Demaine is a 30-year-old professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the top origami theorist. He went to college at 12, got his bachelor's degree at 14 and his Ph.D. at 20, with his dissertation on computational origami. He joined the MIT faculty at that time and received the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship "Genius Award" two years later in 2003. If you think folding paper is being taken too seriously, consider the practical applications: the airbag algorithm came from the design of artistic origami and origami design is being used in the space industry to engineer foldable satellite parts that can be packed into rockets and unfurled in space. Demaine also touches upon pharmaceutical applications - how proteins fold determine good health or disease and being able to create proteins with a certain fold would make it possible to target certain viruses.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Emperor's Nude Tunick

by Drew Martin
I just watched Naked States, a documentary about Spencer Tunick, the photgrapher who made his name taking pictures of mass nudes in public. I have liked his work but had no idea who he was, I definitely did not expect the quirky New Yorker who was not quick to shed his own clothes when he ended up at a nudist beach in Sandy Hook, New Jersey. To fit in, he and his crew disrobed but he said it was too hard to concentrate on his work and he complained about a lack of pockets. Tunick's photos are beautifully still with bodies that seem to be in-between rest and death. He says his work has two sides: form and shape without fashion, and a reaction to war, terrorism and killing. For his first shoot with more than 1,000 people (gathered at a Phish concert) he photographed all the bodies lying down on an old Air Force runway that used to be home to fighter jets with nuclear capabilities. Now that Tunick is famous he can get whoever and however many people he wants to pose for him, but this documentary from 2000 is simply about a guy with an idea and a camera. It shows an unknown Tunick struggling to earn his recognition: driving across the country with his devoted girlfriend in a van to different shoots, trying to find models on the street like a guileless Greenpeace volunteer asking passersby to sign a petition. At a biker gathering an irate father tells him to F-off when he approaches his daughter. The amazing thing about the documentary is that it shows the cycle of participation. Some people are up for anything but for the most part the people he asks are bashful and reluctant but then speak about the experience as liberating and the awkward feeling of putting their clothes back on. One young woman in Fargo responds to his initial request, "Don't you know we are in North Dakota and we are very repressed." She talks to friends right afterwards. A guy is suspicious but a girl says that it must be as liberating as skinny dipping. The most moving subject is a young woman who is extremely shy about the offer and then after being photographed says she was raped six months prior to the shoot and that since the rape she had an invisible boundary around her. She says that Tunick's shoot was 90% of her therapy to feel "free to be me." Most of the bigger shoots seem completely chaotic and frustrating. At the time of the film, Tunick was arrested five times, three of those in New York. For a New York arrest shown in the beginning of the film, Tunick is charged with aiding and abetting disorderly conduct. The movie ends with the charges dropped and the triumph of a impressive solo show at the I-20 gallery.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Cloud

by Drew Martin
Walt Disney was restless in the afterlife. The Cloud was boring, but then it filled with digital information: articles, photos and movies. Walt, the omnivore that he is, devours all of it. One of his favorite things to watch is a performance by Lenka Klodová. In the piece, Lenka gives a survey of art with large, painted cardboard panels and her big, bare breasts. You never actually see Lenka topless because she stands behind the boards. To begin, Lenka holds up a large panel with a painting of Madonna/Virgin Mary and baby Jesus. Then she knocks out the head of the Christ child and substitutes his cherubic face with a round breast. The small crowd in the brick room cheers at the transformation of Christ from mere paper into living flesh. An old man with a scraggly beard raises his hands and shouts..."It's a miracle!" Lenka then holds up a still-life painting of a bowl overflowing with juicy fruits. She tosses aside two, flat apples and replaces them with her own ripe melons. Finally, (Walt's favorite part) Lenka holds up a huge panel with a painted Mickey Mouse, which is almost as tall as she is. Some viewers start singing M-I-C-K-E-Y M-O-U-S-E. Lenka punches out Mickey's eyes from behind and slips both breasts through the cardboard sockets. Walt admits, Mickey never looked so good.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Cabbage

by Drew Martin
In my mid-twenties, I lived in Sudetenland where I used to ride the trolley buses. One day, I got on a full bus and a middle-aged woman squished next to me. She was curvy and carried heavy bags of produce. The doors closed and the bus rolled forward. Our backs were to each other and our bodies overlapped on one of our legs. Her calf muscle was strong and firm, and it pressed against my leg with a hidden desire. I stood still and enjoyed the sensation. We rode over a metal bridge above the Elbe and turned before a small basalt mountain where a fallout shelter had been prepared for the communist elite. That was a fading era: the Berlin Wall had been torn down a few years earlier and people were enjoying new freedoms, everyone except me. I was stuck in this backwards town in a bad marriage and all I had in this moment was the pressing leg of a stranger. The bus continued on and bounced and people's bodies jiggled. When we rounded a corner one way our legs would press harder and then on the opposite turn our calves would briefly disconnect but soon find each other again. Finally, the trolley bus slowed down before the main station. The doors opened and I turned as I got out to look as this companion's leg, only to find it had been a cabbage in her bag. 

Drawn to Landscape

by Drew Martin
I recently revisited the lecture Blind Landscape by Teresita Fernández, which she gave at Princeton in 2009. I watched it a couple years ago but was not stirred by it, so I watched it again and listened to it several times. I also checked out
some more-recent online interviews with her in order to understand this artist who I have not met and whose work I have never seen in situ. Fernández is the first to point out: you need to see her work in person, but The Museum of Peripheral Art's raison d'être is to embrace the peripheral, mediated experience of the arts. Fernández is beyond accomplished: her work has been shown all over the world, her awards include the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship "Genius Award" (2005), and last year President Obama appointed her to the United States Commission of Fine Arts. Fernández calls herself a conceptual artist but I do not like that term (for her) because what she produces is really installation art. In keeping with her own label, however, it would be more appropriate to call her a conceptual landscape artist because her work is about the grandiosity of land (and sea) but is also intimately close to the composition and details of the whole. Not only does travel suit this very cultured and articulate artist, but I think Fernández really redefines what traveling as an artist can be - a constant, creative exchange with landscapes. Although people are not present in her work - they are integral to it as the viewer, mimicking the reality of our relationship with the land and architecture. Most artists from Miami - (now) based in Brooklyn would only trash-talk New Jersey to stake one's claim as a New Yorker but Fernández is territorial in the greatest sense - she explores her environment with a curious eye and an open mind. I was impressed when she spoke about some of the Garden State's points of interest: the other-worldly phosphorescence room at the Franklin Mineral Museum and the Great Falls of the Passaic River in Paterson. What I like most about Fernández is her interest in things such as the intentionally surface-burned houses of Naoshima, Japan (pictured left - bottom), which she calls big charcoal drawings, and the graphite mines of Borrowdale, England, where graphite has been used for ages to mark sheep, which she delights in calling animated drawings. Pictured left - top is Ring of Fire by Fernández.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The First Stone Sculptures of Life

by Drew Martin
It has been relayed to me all of my life by art historians that Michelangelo found his human forms inside the blocks of marble and he merely released them. He died in 1564 and while fossils of bizarre creatures had been discovered for centuries, it was not for another 300 years that people started making sense of them. There is something very Michelangelo about fossilized plants and animals - hints of life trapped in stone/converted to stone. It is also quite mythological: Medusa-like. Two days ago, a neighbor and I were walking around an excavation across the street from my house. We live in northern New Jersey, which is full of glacial field stones. The deep dig turned up thousands of rocks, some the size of large cars. On the way out of the site, my neighbor saw a chunk of sandstone. He mentioned there would be fossils inside, perhaps a few shells, so he lifted it above his head and threw it down on the asphalt driveway. It split open to reveal the tail of some ancient creature, with a ribbed end. It was fascinating to witness and to contemplate this life form from a much earlier time and to imagine that the very land we stood on was once covered by the ocean.
Click here to see a video of the rock and fossil.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Possible Side Effects of Good Design

by Drew Martin
I just finished watching the Princeton University online lecture SIGNALS GraphicChipDesignKidd. Chip Kidd is an author, editor and graphic designer, best known for his book covers for Knopf where he has worked in design since 1986 and is now the associate art director. Kidd is a captivating, colorful and articulate speaker. This lecture is a must-see for graphic designers; he speaks about time and sequence, color crescendo, making typography "look like it is in denial," the fine line between minimalism and boredom, and most importantly figuring out your idea and concept before trying to make it look good or leading the project with style in mind. The six-finger image here is from the cover of Augusten Borroughs' Possible Side Effects. While discussing the approach for Orhan Pamuk's My Name is Red, he talks about incorporating 16th century Turkish court paintings and generalizes about such details, "We want to present them in a way that will provide them a narrative that is applicable and relative to what is going on in the book." Kidd taught Senior Graphic Design Portfolio at the School of Visual Arts in New York for six years and seems to have the best of both worlds - the tools computers can offer but also the skills of a hands-on, old-school designer.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Human Geography

by Drew Martin
Yesterday I watched the Princeton University online lecture Place, Art, and Self by Yi-Fu Tuan, who was introduced as a pioneer in human geography. He spoke about our spaces - natural (pristine nature), artificial (all architecture) and virtual (the space in art and music where we pause to rest to be nurtured). He differentiated the kinds of art -  photography is a very stabile space, while 'dutifully plodding through a novel' is too much like life, not a place to rest with one inconsequential incident after another, but added that even in a novel there are pages that work on our sensibility, making us aware of our presence and mood to which we may wish to return. Interestingly, he spoke about the nostalgia of (specifically) American men directed to the recent past and also about how home towns stunt growth and do not suffice for the mature human being. I think what Tuan considers with equal weight, physical and virtual spaces, are actually one in the same - we seek out environments that are manifestations of the space in our minds. Tuan said he has a desert personality and that people fall in love with a place in very much the same way they fall in love with others; affection for a place might be like a friendship that grows over time but it can also be love at first sight.