Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Three Days at Sea: The Story In Which A Story Swims

by Drew Martin
The question "Where were you when JFK was shot?" or "Where were you on 9/11?" takes a public event from a specific place and turns it into a ubiquitous but personal encounter. This is quite different than an experience with media, especially books. No one ever asked me "Where were you when you read The Diary of Anne Frank?" but it is an interesting question. Your age, place and state of mind when you experience a certain work of literature has quite an influence on how you absorb and remember it.

In my mid-twenties, the relationship that I had reluctantly boarded, shipwrecked and I found myself adrift in a vast, pacific ocean of solitude. I did not try to swim to land or search for other ships on the horizon. Instead, I sat on my flotsam and passed the time reading one book for three days straight: Moby Dick.

I was residing in a city of 150,000 people in Sudetenland and the only other native English speaker was a Canadian who I rarely saw. The feeling that I had when I finished reading Moby Dick was as if I had been washed ashore; spit up on the beach. So I stood up on that sandy stretch between fiction and reality and walked into town. Coincidentally, I met the Canadian on the street and we made our way to the nearest pub. We found a table on the second-floor balcony, which felt like the bow of a ship on that breezy summer day. The Canadian had a Masters in English literature and was a Herman Melville enthusiast. What luck! We sat there for a couple hours, sipping from our golden beers, recounting the tale of Ishmael, like two sailors land-locked from the sea of our language.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

I've Got Your Nose

By Drew Martin
I love the game parents and siblings play with young kids in which they act like they steal the youngster's nose and then claim to possess it as a wriggling thumb sandwiched between their own fingers. It is an absurd gimmick and the fake dismembering leads to a deepening of the farce such as eating the nose or throwing it out the window.

I never paid much attention to John Baldessari's work but I have been thinking about his isolation of the nose, as he does in God Nose from 1965 (top image) and Noses & Ears, Etc.: Head (with Nose) from 2006 (bottom image). I typically try to find out the motivation behind a work but I feel like Baldessari is about something different; that it is on me to bring the details to his images. So I thought about the childish nose-stealing game, and the gold and silver fake nose that the famous astronomer Tycho Brahe wore after losing his real nose in a duel. It would come off when he sneezed and he took it off at 16th-century parties to get laughs. I thought about noses that snorted snuff and cocaine through the ages, and I remembered back to high school when classmates were given nose-jobs as presents from their parents.

To bring more meaning to Baldessari's noses, I rewatched Sleeper yesterday morning. Woody Allen plays Miles Monroe, who is cryogenically frozen in 1973 and defrosted 200 years later. The movie winds down with a comic scene of Allen and Keaton who pose as doctors in order to thwart a regime. They are supposed to clone a totalitarian leader from all that remains of him, his nose. Instead, they steal the nose, escape from a locked-down facility with a fake gun pointed at it and assassinate the remains of the leader by throwing the nose under a steamroller.

Last night I reread Nikolai Gogol's short story, The Nose, which he wrote in the mid 1830's and is a precursor of magical realism. In the first chapter, a Russian barber finds a client's nose in his breakfast roll. In the second chapter, the client, Major Kovalyov, awakes without his nose and spends some time tracking it down and confronting it, after it has taken on a life of its own. A policeman eventually returns the nose but Kovalyov is unable to attach it.  In the third and final chapter, Kovalyov awakes with his nose affixed and promenades around St. Petersburg to show it off.

The word for nose in Russian is Нос, spelled backwards it is Сон, which means "dream." There is a version of the story in which nose is substituted with a blank, so reader can interpret the dismemberment as an implied castration, which actually makes the story much more entertaining and more plausible since the character is emasculated by the loss. This also sheds light on an exchange of letters in the second chapter between Kovalyov and the mother of a woman she wants him to marry. He accuses her of stealing his body part but her response informs him that she is innocent.

Odd as it may sound, if you substitute nose with penis in this story, it becomes more believable, or at least easier to visualize. I have a harder time picturing a nose in Kovalyov's descriptions, such as his first encounter with the detached organ:

After two minutes or so, the nose emerged from the house. He wore a gold-braided, brightly colored uniform, buckskin breeches, a three-cornered hat, and a saber. The plumes on his hat indicated the rank of a state councilor. From everything else it could be inferred that he was setting off on some sort of official visit. He looked left, then right, called out to the coachman to bring the carriage up to the very door, got in and was off. 

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Double Hour

by Drew Martin
Yesterday I watched La Doppia Ora (The Double Hour), which is about a Slovenian chambermaid, Sonia, and an Italian ex-cop/security guard, Guido, who meet speed-dating in Turin. Their brief relationship is interrupted by an art heist during which Sonia takes a bullet to the head and goes into a coma. What follows is the surfacing of her double-life.

Double Hour refers to an hour/minute match (i.e. 10:10) when, according to Guido, you are supposed to make a wish. In this film it is used as the moment in which a double-life overlaps. Romantic thrillers are not my cup of tea but the twisted plot got me thinking about the history of the narrative. In a typical story, the reader/audience is teased along until the conclusion. The director holds the reins in plays and theater-movies, but controllable media such as books and online films, give the viewer control and the narrative is more vulnerable.

One of my English professors in college suggested we first read the last chapter of a novel in order to appreciate how the author structures the story. It was common in Greek plays for the audience to know more than the characters; the thrill of suspense was to see the reaction of the actors to their revelations. This is quite the opposite of today's productions, which try to surprise us in the unraveling of multi-layered stories. Shakespeare does both with plays such as Measure for Measure, in which the audience is as clueless as most of the characters for the first part but is let in on the secret for the grand finale.

There are landmark movies such as Memento that raise the bar of plot twists but these are simply extensions of detective stories. What La Doppia Ora reminded me of was not another movie but of the time I was drugged and mugged by a French woman and an Austrian man in Valencia after spending the day with them. They had earned my trust and then revealed their plot to me in the act of the mugging.

Once I was held at knife point on the old 42nd Street while a friend was mugged in front of me. As far a narrative goes, the 42nd Street incident was a simple story line, like slap-stick. The mugging in Spain was something very different; it was a well developed and multi-layered plot. It felt like I was part of psychological thriller, especially when I went to the police to report the incident and they laughed and said, "What do you want us to do, give your money back to you?"

What I began to understand yesterday is that these complicated movie plots are not simply a bag of tricks to hold the viewers' attention but they are actually a cross section of reality which is stratified by individual perspectives that overlap with levels of understanding, misunderstanding, truths and lies. A horror film pushes our flight and fight buttons, but a romantic thriller such as La Doppia Ora affects us at a higher level and challenges the rationale we use to navigate through deception. I just wonder how much of the current interest in the multi-twisted plot is a reaction to an era where information is so accessible and exposed.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Lagerkvist's Dwarf and the Vulgarians

by Drew Martin
Dwarf is a small word, which describes a small person but has the opposite intention as a verb; to dwarf someone or something. The extremes of this term are exhausted by Pär Lagerkvist in his novel, The Dwarf, which is set in undefined Italian states during the Renaissance. Lagerkvist published this story in 1944 and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1951.

The Dwarf is considered Lagerkvist's greatest novel but it is such a vile narration that you want it to end as soon as the main character gets under your skin. Piccoline is the 26-inch tall court fetish of a prince's family. He hates everyone and everything. Hatred is the core of his personality and the boundary of philosophy. He confesses,

"It is difficult to understand those whom one does not hate..."

Lagerkvist's Dwarf is an analysis of man but unlike Swift's Gulliver's Travels, Voltaire's Candide or Saint Exupéry's The Little Prince, this book is not a globe-trotting adventure to size man up to an array of characters. Instead, Piccoline serves as the omnipresent outsider surveying the world around him with biting commentary.

"Human beings need flattery; otherwise they do not fulfill their purpose, not even in their own eyes. And both the present and the past contain much that is beautiful and noble which, without due praise, would have been neither noble nor beautiful."

After 70 pages, Piccoline joins his prince on a military campaign and drags us through a lot of muck until he returns to his castle. He poisons peacemongering enemies at a feast and then his city falls under siege, which festers from the inside out with the plague. The first 70 pages are the most interesting because the reader discovers how far this character can go, especially after he decapitates a kitten in the arms of a sleeping girl.

Lagerkvist makes a lot of vague references to people and places but the most obvious is Maestro Bernardo as Leonardo da Vinci. He sketches impaled heads, designs great weapons of war, paints The Last Supper, and dissects cadavers, which Piccoline describes in one line as "ferreting in Francesco's body." Dissection is an appropriate motif for this book. Piccoline is repulsed by the rank innards of humans, but he slices open the belly of man with his sharp tongue and lets the entrails spill out.

There are many trollish mythological creatures, and characters such as Shakespeare's Puck that are in Piccoline's blood, but the most relevant predecessors for me are two paintings. The first, and most historically and geographically aligned is Bronzino's 1553 depiction of the famed dwarf Morgante, a jester to the Medici court (top image). Piccoline describes a moment when he is stripped in the most violating and humiliating manner by Bernardo for a life study. It also is telling of a passage when he is offended by a strumpet's underarm hair and explains that any body hair other than that on one's head is repulsive. Unfortunately, Bronzino's dwarf shows nothing of Piccoline's causticity, which is overflowing in Velázquez's The Dwarf Sebastian de Morra, from 1645 (second from top image). The exquisite outfit is also fitting for a passage in which Piccoline explains that his clothes are cut from the same cloth as the prince's garments.

Could these paintings have influenced Lagerkvist's character? I know very little about this witty author, but think he took great joy in sampling and assembling his characters and story from many sources. His own commentary of great art through the eyes of Piccoline is most poignant in the description of Bernardo's portrait of the princess, the unnamed Mona Lisa.

"He has painted her exactly as she is, like a middle-aged whore. It is really like her, diabolically so. The voluptuous face with the heavy eyelids and the vague lustful smile, everything is like her."

On the flip side of this influence, I tried to think of a more modern character that is the best incarnation of Lagerkvist's dwarf. Surprisingly, it is Quark, a Ferengi in the Star Trek series Deep Space Nine (bottom image). He is one of the most developed characters from all of the shows. The Ferengi are dwarf-like and share Piccoline's view of humans as vulgarians. The only great difference is that Ferengi love women, while Piccoline explains that if he could ever love a human, it would be a man's man.

One thing I have neglected to explain, is that while dwarfs are of course human beings, Piccoline tells us otherwise when he speaks about his "ancient" race,

"We dwarfs have no homeland, no parents; we allow ourselves to be born of strangers, anywhere in secret, among the poorest and the most wretched, so that our race should not die out."

This otherness...this suspended diaspora is certainly a comment on the times; Lagerkvist finished this book at the end of World War II. The dwarf could be a Jewish man, or a gypsy, but he is often the persecuted homosexual. Most of the time he is simply a civilian caught up in the worst of humanity. When the enemy guests are first received at the castle, he protests with an absurd rant that Lagerkvist must have only felt for the pointlessness of war,

"I think the world has gone mad! Lasting peace! Nor more war! What flummery, what childishness! Do they think they can change the cosmic system? What conceit! And what infidelity toward the past and the great traditions!...And then there will be nothing left to put a limit to the bottomless pride and arrogance of mankind."

Lagerkvist's dwarf is a simple character with a very complicated relationship to his author/creator. Piccoline explains how the dwarf jester is seen as the buffoon but points out that the real buffoons are the court poets and philosopher's with their profound meditations on life. This passage can be expanded to include the reader of the book. He is our narrator jester and while we laugh at his ways and limited thoughts he is really setting us up for a farce we are central to. His praises are the real critiques and his thoughts that are shallow on the first read are really quite profound.

"Love is something which dies and when dead rots and becomes soil for a new love. Then the dead love continues its secret life in the living one, and thus in reality there is no death in love."

Saturday, September 8, 2012

EAST vs. WEST: The Graffiti Paintings of Gajin Fujita

by Drew Martin

I went to Japan several years ago looking for unique illustrations. What I found was a lot of run-of-the-mill anime. What I was seeking was actually much closer to home, in America. The paintings of Gajin Fujita sample Eastern and Western imagery and use materials ranging from spray paint to gold leaf.

Fujita is tagged as a Los Angeles graffiti artist and even though he was a member of graffiti crews it sounds a bit too rogue for someone who went to a select arts magnet high school, has a BFA from Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles and an MFA from the University of Nevada in Las Vegas. Fujita shows his work in museums and galleries all over the world, and sells his pieces for tens of thousands of dollars. His 2011 solo show, Made in L.A. at LA Louver was preceded by the Los Angeles Times critic Christopher Knight stating he is "the most important 21st Century iteration of graffiti's influence on art." 

I still associate graffiti with the rock-bottom New York of my youth. Like most once-taboo things, such as tattoos and body piercings, graffiti was reserved for wayward punks. The question is whether Fujita was the East LA Prometheus who stole the fire from the street and brought it to the world of fine arts or whether graffiti, like other inner city phenomena, including rap music, simply found its own way from its gritty breeding grounds into the mainstream where it has become safely popularized and is now adored by collectors.


While defacing property is still a crime, the graffiti style grew beyond itself long ago. There have been decades of recognition and sponsors and graffiti has already been embraced by advertising, merchandising and corporate branding. That being said, and despite having been raised with reputable Japanese parents in sunny California, what I like about Fujita is that he has drummed up the virility of his culture in an era when the sex and violence of Japan have been packaged through anime and filtered through a culture of cute, as well as peculiar perversities.

Gajin's fornications and altercations are unbridled and raw. They are not the quirky-fetishes of Japanese businessmen who buy unwashed panties of teenage girls from vending machines or about fighting in some kind of game environment. This is Shogun sex and violence, slicing through bodies like a samurai sword.

It is an interesting idea, that this satellite and middle-aged Japanese "kid" is perhaps more in touch with the vibe of his ancestors than his counterparts in Japan. If you look at Takashi Murakami, for example, his work starts with pop and ends with pop. Even Murakami's very sexual pieces, such as "My Lonesome Cowboy," a life-size sculpture of smooth, young man offering up a thick swirl of his ejaculation, are still presented as cartoon manifestations.

I have heard it said before that the "cute" culture of Japan is a subconscious and humbled response to the WWII nuclear blasts the nation suffered. Fujita, however, grew up on US soil in a culture that was once persecuted in America and although he is now part of a respected minority, he knows the downside of being one. There are no polite maneuvers with Fujita. He reaches back to dominant Edo period imagery and the power of sexuality.

The E
ast versus West dialogue for Japan is not simply Europe and America versus Asia but an internal polarity as well. Tokyo and Kyoto actually stand for Eastern Capital and Western Capital. In Fujita's painting EAST vs. WEST, the jousting warriors are marked with symbols of America's eastern and western cultural capitals, New York and Los Angeles, by using the team logos for the New York Yankees and the Los Angeles Dodgers.



This rivalry is just as pronounced in almost every other aspect of American culture. It is Hollywood versus Broadway, LA hip versus NY cool fashion and many decades of artworld comparisons. That being said, Fujita's EAST vs. WEST is really East and West. The graffiti style Fujita uses originates from the East Coast - Philadelphia and New York, but the imagery is first and foremost Japanese, which he mixes with western icons such as Bugs Bunny only to bring us back to Asian culture with the title, Year of the Rabbit.

The 2007 documentary, Bomb It, about the global phenomenon of graffiti, does not mention Fujita but there is an interview with the Los Angeles artist Robbie Conal who explains that California is seen as a superficial place but what the world does not understand is that Californians are "deeply superficial." If graffiti is a superficial art, Fujita’s paintings are certainly deeply superficial.

Ultimate Simplicity Leads to Purity: Jiro Dreams of Sushi

by Drew Martin
I just watched Jiro Dreams of Sushi, which is a wonderful documentary about Jiro Ono, a left-handed, master sushi chef in his 80s. His restaurant, Sukiyabashi Jiro,  has a Michelin 3-star rating (the highest recognition in the culinary world). Reservations are made a month in advance and customers pay more than $300 a plate, which makes it the most expensive restaurant in the world per minute for the patrons who might spend only 15 minutes there. The restaurant is in Tokyo (no surprise) but it is underground in a subway station corridor where you might typically find a shoe shine or magazine stand. It only has 10 seats and it does not have a restroom.

Jiro is a stickler. Apprentices are first taught to squeeze hot towels for the clients, then slice fish, and after ten years they are permitted to grill eggs. One young chef said he made hundreds for months, and all of them were rejected.

Jiro was independent since the age of nine. He says that kids whose parents tell them they are always welcome to come back home if the do not 'make it' will be failures. He recommends saying 'this will never be your home again' when they set out for the world.

The food critic Masuhiro Yamamoto sums up Jiro with the phrase "Ultimate simplicity leads to purity" and he says that Jiro has the five qualities of a great chef:

1. taking work seriously
2. aspiring to improve
3. cleanliness
4. leading instead of collaborating
5. passion

Although most of the film is shot in restaurant and at the fish market, this is not ultimately a foodie flick with a world-travel agenda. It is about being good at what you do. Jiro recommends immersing yourself in your work, falling in love with your work, mastering your skill and never complaining about what you do.

The style of the documentary is simple and well constructed. I like how the subtitles are positioned specific to the speaker. There are comparisons of Jiro's preparations to an orchestrated experience, so there is a sound track to match with music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Max Richter and Philip Glass.

The title, Jiro Dreams of Sushi comes from a moment in the film when Jiro speaks about how he actually dreams of making sushi in his sleep. Click here to watch the trailer.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Warhol, Picasso? Yawn

by Drew Martin
In the September 10 issue of Newsweek there is an interesting article by Blake Gopnik in the Omnivore section titled Warhol, Picasso? Yawn: New geniuses are just waiting to be discovered, which is about curators of the major museums who turn too a cliché list of great artists in order to sell tickets, rather than explore new talents. One senior curator confessed "We aren't choosing the wrong names, we're choosing the right ones too many times."

David Ross, a former director of the Whitney and MoMA in San Francisco, who is now at SVA goes so far as to say. "It's more evidence of the death spiral of museums." Gopnik paraphrases:

Today's institutions are forced to shout out the same 'show business' names because of the remorseless growth of their buildings and budgets, their faltering endowments, and a demand for earned income from corporate-minded trustees. When a director calls his staff to the table and cries "our yield is in the shitter-help me here, gang!" smart curators come up with big-name events that can also be justified on scholarly grounds.


Timothy Standring, the curator of the Denver Museum of Art's van Gogh show, defends "The more important the artist, the more narratives you can tell"... but Gopnik questions "Isn't there also the chance that less touted figures might yield fresher stories?"

Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Fragility of Life

by Drew Martin
Last Friday, I hung my work at BankAsiana for Art-flow's Edition Over Original show. My quirky drawings and accompanying artifacts look a little out of place in the clean bank space and compared to the work of the other artists.

When the curator and I took a break and sat down for lunch at a the Korean tofu restaurant next door, she asked me what I thought of the work by the other artists. I squirmed a bit and said I found it superficial, meaning that it was focused on the look of the surface without much behind it. When we returned to the space, we met up with the artist Heayeon Yoon and I helped hang her three photographs, which are my favorite pieces in the show. I told her so and asked about her technique: she dunks flowers into an aquarium and photographs them. For me, they reference Andres Serrano's Piss Christ (which was destroyed last year by a protester), but Yoon was unaware of the reference. I asked her to tell me a little more about the work, which I found visually pleasant but not very deep and then she blew me a way with her answer. The idea for the series started after she saw a dead body on the sidewalk far beneath her office window in the Empire State Building. A man who had worked in the building, jumped to his death. Yoon's submersed flowers speak about the fragility of life.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Woody Allen: A Documentary

by Drew Martin
When I was living in Europe two decades ago, I asked a young Englishman what the Brits made of Woody Allen. This Londoner personally thought that Allen was brilliant but said he disrupted a comforting stereotype they maintained that all Americans were shallow and limited in conversation.

New York was my first city and Allen was the first real voice of Manhattan for me; neurotic but smart. This past weekend I watched a two-part movie about his life and career, Woody Allen: A Documentary. I was surprised by Allen's candidness and accessibility for the camera. In this film we see his workspace; a corner of his apartment anchored by his Olympia manual typewriter. He even digs into his drawers to show us his thought process; a pile of notes that he sifts through on his bed as someone might squirrel through an overturned trash bin looking for a winning lottery ticket. My favorite comment by Allen is when he talks about getting more pleasure from a project he that is "enthused over" and fails with than with something he knows he can do well:

"I put a higher value on the tragic muse than the comic muse. I have always felt that tragic writing, tragic theater, tragic film confronts reality head-on, and doesn't satirize it, tease it, kid it, deflect it, opt out with some kind of gag at the last minute."


Woody Allen: A Documentary is a wonderful sampling and coherent narrative for one of our generation's most prolific filmmakers, respected directors and genius comedians.