Saturday, November 30, 2013

Propping Up Rembrandt in a Circa 1980 East German Film

by Drew Martin
I just finished watching Barbara starring Nina Hoss, in which she plays a doctor in 1980 East Germany who has been sent to a provincial hospital following her request to leave the communist state. In one scene, Hoss visits a colleague's lab where he draws her attention to a print of Rembrandt's The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp from 1632, which is housed in the Mauritshuis museum in The Hague.

The colleague sets up the scene:

I'd like to go to The Hague. That's where the Rembrandt is. Didn't you notice anything? The painting. The man lying there is Aris Kindt. He's just been hanged for theft. It's Doctor Tulp giving the anatomy lesson.

They should have cut open the abdomen first.

But they dissected the left hand instead.

There's a mistake. The hand is wrong. It's the opposite one. It's the right hand and it's too large.

I don't think Rembrandt made a mistake. You see the atlas? It's an anatomy atlas. They're all staring at it. He is, he is, they all are. And the hand is painted like a depiction in the atlas. Rembrandt includes something that we can't see, only they can: the depiction of the hand. Due to this mistake we no longer look through the doctor's eyes. We see him, Aris Kindt. The victim. We are with him, not with them.

On The Moveable Fest website there is an interview with the director, Christian Petzold, about the meaning of this scene.

...I did some research in art history and many people are talking about the wrong arm [being dissected] and then I note this whole picture is made by Rembrandt in a time where the modern time starts and the modern time means [Rene] Descartes, Hadyn, all the new philosophy, Napoleon and the French revolution and at this time, the people said, we make the fate of our own. There is no God anymore. We heard that God is dead. And we can build up societies, we can build up democracy...And these guys [in] this Rembrandt picture are scientists and like Dr. Frankenstein, they want to rebuild their Gods. This is also a symbol for communism and for capitalism. But in this part, it’s communism. They want to build up a society and when you build up societies, the victims are everywhere. The blood is flowing because for them, society is a laboratorium. So they kill this man who’s a thief, they open his body — he stole three potatoes — because they need fresh flesh. They lost their empathy.

Click here to read the entire discussion - Interview: Christian Petzold on the Skillful Seduction of “Barbara”

Barbara is available for streaming on Netflix (with subtitles). Watch the trailer here:

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Introverted Streakers and Extroverted Voyeurs

by Drew Martin
My family and friends know that I am a streaker, which means that I run every day, rain or shine, while traveling or sick in bed. The early morning runs in my northern clime are starting to become less inviting as it gets colder and darker, day by day. Soon there will be freezing rains, icy sleet, and blinding snow. The fair-weather folk will turn to treadmills or hibernate but the beauty of braving the elements is that you have a wonderful introverted experience and you take comfort in the warmth of your own body, the energy that moves you through the void, and the rhythm of your thoughts. It is very similar with artists, when favorable market conditions retreat, the distracting buzz of the artworld dies down, and there is a pause in the extroverted expectations that you turn yourself inside out with your work and promote yourself on the Internet like you are a circus coming to town; you are then left alone with your warm, creative mind, your busy hands, and the friendship of consistency. I liked looking at Andrew Wyeth’s calm pictures when I was a kid, probably because of what he liked about winter; that it shows the backbone of nature and an unhurried world. Pictured here is a detail of Wyeth’s Snowflakes from 1966.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Next in Line: Irina Rozovsky

by Drew Martin
I am passing a couple hours at the charming La Maison du Croque Monsieur on East 13th Street in Manhattan, while I wait for a print job at East Side Copy, next door.  I thought I would explore the area and look for art spaces that might be open, but the job I am running requires a lot of attention so I am bouncing back and forth between the soft lighting and stressed walls of the café and the stark fluorescent lighting and messy counter of the copy shop.

Every time I pop back into the storefront, there are new people in line getting one-off jobs done. The last time I popped down there I bumped into a young photographer named Irina Rozovsky who was perfect binding a mock-up of a new book of photos she took in Cuba, which are really good. She let me have a look, and remarked that I am the first person to see it. I told her that I had hoped to see some art tonight and so I was happy she brought it to me. She told the guy behind the counter that she really liked the yellow rubbery glue they used for the spine. I mentioned it looked like something by Eva Hesse.

Pictured here is the first picture you see on Irina's website. Click here to see more >>

Friday, November 15, 2013

Before and After Art

by Drew Martin
I used to think that artists, including me, simply pulled things out of the air and had the power to create movements that could change the world, but now I realize that art is simply one of many moving parts of a constantly changing world. Art is a synthesis of what comprises the creator’s trappings: physical environment, social mores, and past and current events. I also used to think that movements neatly ended like the sections of my collegiate Janson and Janson art history tome. But now I see how ideas are devoured like fallen prey: lioness ad agencies bite off choice parts, the rest is left for hyenas, and the worms.

I thought about a few specific examples of this system and focus here on three movements/styles: Pointillism, Surrealism, and De Stijl.

Pointillism was indeed a comment at the time of physics by Georges Seurat, but ancient world mosaics such as this Roman piece preceded this by more than a thousand years, and the style has worked its way into our everyday visual language as seen here with pixilated photographs. 

Salvador Dalí acknowledged his debt to Hieronymus Bosch, who was doing wackier shit than any of the surrealists 500 years before they were born.  We have always had surrealism with us, look at our mythologies, but what surrealism as a popular art movement did was open the floodgates for expressing weird juxtapositions.

And finally, Piet Mondrian, who was incredibly inventive, but with a Dutch environment full of colorful fields of flowers, leaded glass windows, and city maps, his style seems more obvious. That being said, his simple color field paintings have probably been more appropriated than any other artwork. Very specific references have been used in fashion, design, architecture, and even hair products.

The following is a summary by a bikini kickboxer:

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

OMG, Did She Just Call Her Twitter Twat?

by Drew Martin
My wife and I are now cruising through House of Cards on Netflix. Wow, it’s well done; great everything. And I thought I was not going to like it. While it is primarily about the politics of Washington there is so much more at play.

There are some fun media details, such as on-screen balloon texts between the main character, a congressman played by Kevin Spacey, and a reporter played by Kate Mara. Mara’s Zoe Barnes is a millennial blogger at the fictitious Washington Herald, but her ambitions are not always welcome. At one point an older, female colleague calls her Twitter Twat out of frustration.

What keeps the show feeling really fresh, however, are not new-media snaps but good-old-fashioned soliloquies by Spacey, which pulls the viewer into his two-faced world. The most shocking is during the church service for a teenage girl who died after she lost control of her car while texting that the Peachoid water tower, which she was driving by in her town, looks like a vagina. Spacey attends the service to work his politics and while giving a heart-wrenching speech about losing his father as a teenager, he makes a break to tell us he did not really care much for the man.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Artists with Abs

by Drew Martin
(Top left) The Barberini Faun from a mind-boggling 2,200 years ago has amazing abs. So does Michelangelo's David, from 500 years ago.

Art has celebrated ripped torsos for thousands of years, and while most of those bodies are idealized models, the artists working with marble and other heavy materials must have been chiseled as well. The labor to copy the human form eased up over the years with the less-physical advance of painting and photography. 

In the 1960s Yves Klein created the most immediate reference to the body with Anthropométrie de l'époque bleue, a chauvinistic and absurd romp of nude female models rolling in ultramarine blue paint, who then pressed their bodies against blank sheets of paper lining the walls and floor of the performance space. (silly and profound at the same time) 

We do not see a lot of self portraits showing off the artist's physique through the millennia even though narcissism is really convenient for a solitary creator. When I think about somewhat current artists exhibiting their six-pack abs, Matthew Barney (left, second from top) is the first to come to mind. As a transfer into the artworld from jock sports, Barney made his athletic body central to his work. I never liked/had the patience for his pieces but anyone married to Björk is OK by me.

Artists are, like homeless people for some reason, naturally fit. Perhaps it is a restlessness that is channeled into the physical actions of creating artwork. This thought was always milling around in the back of my mind but I became more conscious of it when I started noticing a lot of fitness posts on Facebook by fellow art student, Debbie Beukema, from my studies at UC Santa Barbara.

I do not recall Debbie ever being particularly fit or obsessed with sport, and she recently explained that she had a broad swing of weight changes over the years. Now in her early 40s she is, in her words...

 in the best shape of my life, and in no small coincidence, I am also painting the best and drawing the best in my life. I think they go hand in hand."

Her day includes five to eight hours of art, and a diverse work-out regime. So much for the starving artist in cold-water Paris flats; today's artists are managing their careers, and health like never before.

(Debbie's torso shot and her painting Poppies were specifically provided by her for this post)

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Evolution Gone Wild: Bigfoot Believers, Chewbacca de Wookiee, and Neanderthal Percenters

by Drew Martin
I just finished reading Bigfoot Observer's Field Manual. A neighbor from the Northwest coast, aka Sasquatch territory, gave it to me after my daughter said she liked his I Believe Yeti sticker on camping vehicle. I was interested in reading it for two reasons. The first is that it falls into the realm of media that I find fascinating, which includes people obsessed with communicating with extraterrestrials. My interest has nothing to do with their findings but why they want to believe, and what is missing in their real lives.

ET and Bigfoot are a far cry from one another but the discovery of either would certainly open up the theory of evolution. George Lucas' creation of Chewbacca and the Wookie species in Star Wars satisfies multiple
I Believe groups (Bigfoot as an extraterrestrial). I wonder how much of any kind of current Bigfoot interest has to do with our renewed fascination with the bygone Neanderthals. New genetic tests will tell you what percentage of your DNA is from Neanderthals - a result of our ancestors interbreeding with archaic humans. As a former biology student I would suggest to all of these groups to study the nature we know. There is nothing more extraterrestrial than insects, microscopic lifeforms, and sea creatures; and, nothing so familiar as our ape relatives.

The second, and more compelling reason to endure Bigfoot Observer's Field Manual is that I was really interested in it as fiction. I liked the idea of it lifting magical realism off its pages. What I mean by this has to do with the idea that many things are invisible to us until someone brings them to our attention, such as the eruv wire (shown in the bottom image, strung to the lamppost), which is a physical boundary delineated or erected by certain Jewish communities to accommodate religious restrictions that limit what can be physically carried between public and private domains on the Sabbath. There is an eruv wire running around a large section of Manhattan but it is rarely noticed. What if this Manual cashed in on a belief system where someone who read it all of a sudden started seeing glimpses of Bigfoot stepping behind trees, lurking in the shadows?

One thing I have to hand to the
Manual is that it is very thorough about how to prepare for spending time in nature, with a special attention to sensitivity towards nature. I also entertained the idea about an urban fellow picking up this copy and going off into the woods to find Bigfoot, but in doing so has a real connection with nature, and a separation from the life that set him up to want to believe in something so far-fetched.

Here is the infamous 1967 Bigfoot hoax film.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Orange Is the New Black Is the New One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

by Drew Martin
I just finished binge-watching the Netflix series Orange is the New Black with my wife. It took an episode for me to get into but then I was hooked. The writing/directing is very good, and there is a medley of performances; some very good, others are simply caricatures. And then there are caricatures that really open up into something unexpected, such as the consistent love-to-hate performance of Pablo Schreiber as "Pornstache," and especially the amazing performance of Uzo Aduba as "Crazy Eyes," which sometimes reads as a cartoon character but can then jump into the depth of Shakespeare.

Orange Is the New Black is derived from Piper Kerman's memoir Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison, and while it references many things, including the 1978 documentary Scared Straight, it culturally overrides
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's 1962 classic novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (Shukov) because the time and place of a soviet gulag is no longer relevant to a post-cold-war American audience. While the politics of the Russian tale are causal, they are conditional in American terms. 

Orange Is the New Black collides stories at the penitentiary crossroads of race, faith, and sexuality. One of my favorite performances is by Laverne Cox, a transgender woman who plays the character of Sophia, the wise hairdresser of the prison. Kudos to Netflix, director Jenji Kohan, and the cast of Orange Is the New Black for pulling off an absorbing first season, and bucking the system for how a series like this is produced and watched.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Say Uncle

by Drew Martin
Pictured here is a portrait of King Charles II of Spain (1661 - 1700) by the Baroque painter Juan Carreño de Miranda. While the subject has been handled with a Goya-like frankness, Carreño must have been quite kind when you read a description of the royal sitter:

The Habsburg King Charles II of Spain was sadly degenerated with an enormous misshapen head. His Habsburg jaw stood so much out that his two rows of teeth could not meet; he was unable to chew. His tongue was so large that he was barely able to speak. His intellect was similarly disabled. His brief life consisted chiefly of a passage from prolonged infancy to premature senility. Carlos’ family was anxious only to prolong his days and thought little about his education, so that he could barely read or write. He had been fed by wet nurses until the age of 5 or 6 and was not allowed to walk until almost fully grown. Even then, he was unable to walk properly, because his legs would not support him and he fell several times. His body remained that of an invalid child. The nature of his upbringing, the inadequacy of his education, the stiff etiquette of his court, his dependence upon his mother and his superstition helped to create a mentally retarded and hypersensitive monarch. 

More baffling than this description is his family tree, and the variety of ways historians have tried to explain the interlooping relationships. Charles II was not simply the offspring of a first cousin marriage, but a culmination of repeated cousin marriages, and uncle/niece marriages for generations.

While I sympathize with the unfortunate result, the motivation behind all the inbreeding was to keep power within the family. Ironically, this is what destroyed them. And even though this all took place more than 300 years ago, and Gregor Mendel’s 19
th century explanation of genetics has illuminated such physical mishaps, it is hard not to draw a parallel with the leadership of modern era politics and corporations in which meritocracy is replaced by nepotism and favoritism. The worst case example is when the power position is so great that millions of lives are at stake, but even at a base level, it is not so much the ineptness of who has obtained a position and the consequences of that, as it is a shame that someone else deserved the position and what he or she could have done to elevate the result.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

DIY Gouldian Kits and the 13-Inch Chair

by Drew Martin
I recently watched Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould, which is a fascinating look at the complicated life of one of the greatest pianists. Gould hailed from Toronto, where he was born in 1932, and died in 1982. He is best known for his interpretations of Bach, and is said to never have missed a note.

I did not know much more about Gould beyond Bach until I saw Genius Within, and was surprised by his media trailblazing, which the film details:

At the time that Gould stopped performing, of course, it was a very big deal, especially for someone who was celebrated, to even contemplate not having a regular concert schedule. But what became unexpected fruit of that was this defense of recorded music, as the reality of music. He happened to come along at a time when the technology for recording music was really starting to take off, and got really behind that as a real advocate and innovator.

Gould had some very fanciful theories about what the possibilities of recording and broadcasting technologies were. They were fanciful in the 1960s. They are simply how we do business today in the 21st century.

“You know, I have a feeling that the end result of all our labors in the recording studio, it’s not going to be some kind of autocratic finished product such as we turn out now, but is going to be a rather more democratic assemblage. And I think we’re going to make kits. I think we’re going to send out these kits, and we’re going to say, 'Do it yourself,' and be, in fact your own editor, be, in a sense your own performer.”

Of course this just sounded lunatic in the ‘60s. But in essence, that’s not only what we can do now on our desktops, but we do do. You know, you hear these stories about someone reediting, you know, a Star Wars movie to take out a character they don’t like. That is a Gouldian kit.

While this section of the documentary inspired this post, I also need to point out an interesting sculptural object that was part of Gould's larger-than-life personality; his piano chair, which he had made by sawing the legs off of a regular chair so that the seat was a mere 13 inches off the floor. He brought it with him everywhere, like a tattered security blanket.

Embedded here is the trailer for Genius Within, and the full-length movie.