Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Language is the Barrier of the Imagination: the Work of Bob Wilson

by Drew Martin
I just finished watching a great documentary about Bob Wilson called Absolute Wilson. The first name that comes to mind with Einstein on the Beach is Philip Glass, who composed the music for this epic work, but Wilson was the mastermind behind the production, and it is said that it was the first opera created around stage sets (by Wilson). He also collaborated with David Byrne, Laurie Anderson, Tom Waits, and William S. Burroughs, and threw himself into grand pieces, such as KA MOUNTain and GUARDenia Terracethe seven-day play he put on atop a mountain in Iran in 1972. 

Monday, February 24, 2014

She's Tanner in California

by Drew Martin
A few days ago I met up with an old friend, Bob DeBris, a photographer from Canada who has been living in the Santa Barbara area for the past few decades. He is now working for the artist Joan Tanner in Montecito, California. I went to visit him at Joan's place where I met and spent the afternoon with this wonderful and inspiring artist. Here are a few detail shots of her home, studios, and property, followed by a short video of her talking about some of her work.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

You See Santa Cruz

by Drew Martin
A couple days ago my daughter and I visited the University of California at Santa Cruz. It is the largest UC campus with the fewest students, and was developed in a decentralized way after the 1970 Kent State massacre in Ohio. Getting around the loop of the scattered areas at UCSC is a little disorienting so we stopped to ask directions from a student who was waiting at a bus stop. Before answering, she asked us to give her a ride while she jumped in the backseat and pushed aside our backpacks to make space for herself. She got us up to speed on campus life as she directed us to the music department where she had to practice her violin before a recital, which put us outside the Digital Arts building and just below the arts studios. We spoke to some of the staff and students, and were really impressed by the art programs as well as the overall energy there. A teacher's assistant gave us a tour of the sculpture studio as students diligently prepared for a critique. The following are detail shots of that walk-through as well as of the other studios.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Inflight Movie: Gravity

by Drew Martin
I did not watch Gravity on a big screen with surround sound. I watched it yesterday inflight between Newark and Chicago on the small headrest screen with a lot of plane noise. I probably missed many details of the effects and music score but in another regard I think I had a closer experience: between 5.5 -7.5 miles up in the air for a movie that was supposed to take place 372 miles above Earth.

Gravity was a perfect inflight movie, especially for the EWR to ORD flight that was slightly longer than the length of the film: Sandra Bullock was safe on Earth before we touched down on the wintry runway. The suspense of the film was definitely heightened being up in the air and the pilot's interjections, which overrode the film seemed fitting.

Although I love sci-fi movies, I have recently been disappointed with ones that were not made so well. This was well-crafted, and Bullock, who I usually stay away from with a ten-foot pole was excellent and made the film.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Art and Life in Modernist Prague

by Drew Martin
This evening a coworker/fella Czech enthusiast dragged me to an event organized by the Czechoslovak Society of Arts and Sciences at the Bohemian National Hall on the upper east side of Manhattan. Actually, I really wanted to go but it was in the opposite direction of my commute home. In the end, it was totally worth it.

The event was an author presentation: Thomas Ort spoke about his new book Art and Life in Modernist Prague: Karel Čapek and His Generation, 1911 - 1938. Ort intensely engaged the audience with his depth of knowledge of the topic, clear view of his subject, and incredibly well-structured talk. It was such a thorough and intelligent lecture that I bought his book so I could continue to follow his train of thought.

From his introduction:
In most contemporary historical writing, the picture one gets of modern life and culture in...Central Europe is rather a gloomy the story goes, there was a retreat from public and social life and a narcissistic withdrawal into the self...paradigmatically, for the Prague of Franz Kafka. This book tells a different story. It is the story of a generation of Czech writers and artists distinguished by a more positive and affirmative encounter with the modern world in the years before the First World War. It is the story of those who greeted the collapse of the Habsburg monarchy not with despair and trepidation but with a sense of hope and liberation. It is the story of those whose early vitalism and anti-rationalism later led them closer to liberalism, not further away from it. The subject of this study is the "Čapek generation," the idea of a loose group of modernist writers and artists coalescing around Karel Čapek (1890-1938), the leading novelist and playwright of interwar Czechoslovakia.

Coming of age in an atmosphere of acute rebellion against the positivism of the nineteenth century, Čapek and his closest peers were strident critics of reason, emphasizing the subjective and provisional character of all knowledge and the impossibility of its disentanglement from individual beliefs, desires, and values. Yet, unlike so many of their contemporaries elsewhere in Europe, their critique of reason issued neither in irrationalism nor in the dogmatic assertion of a particular truth, but in a pragmatic and relativistic vision that combined elements of reason and intuition alike. At a time when many of their modernist counterparts were turning to fascism or communism, the writers and artists around Čapek resolutely opposed the radical political alternatives of the left and the right and steadfastly defended the Czechoslovak state's fledgling democracy.

Monday, February 10, 2014

The Use and Abuse of Museums

by Drew Martin
I just read an essay from 1882 by W. Stanley Jevons titled The Use and Abuse of Museums from the book, The Emergence of the Modern Museum: An Anthology of Nineteenth-Century Sources. Jevons ponders the etymology of museums: temples or haunts of the muses, and questions why we use a term such as concert hall instead of museum even though music shares the same root word. He writes that while books are inherently educational and beneficial because of "the labour of reading," the benefits of museum range "from nil up to something extremely great."

Jevons complains that many people go to the museum only to take a walk or to unleash a household of children on a rainy day. He also comments that large collections are pointless and states that a good lecture on one subject can last an hour. The "glancing over some thousands of unfamiliar specimens" destroys "the habit of concentration of attention, which is the first condition of mental acquisition." Better, he continues, to stand a group of school boys in front of a grocer's shop window where there is a steam mill grinding coffee or to watch "the very active boot maker who professes to sole your shoes while you wait" than to file them cluelessly through the long galleries of a museum.

Jevons favors how the Thorvaldsen Museum in Copenhagen contains, in a single building, primarily work by the artist, which he says expresses a unity in style. He also liked The Pompeian House within the Crystal Palace (pictured here).

"For a few minutes at least the visitor steps from the present; he shuts out the age of iron, and steam, and refreshment contractors, and learns to realise the past."

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Your Teenager's Room as Installation Art

by Drew Martin
My middle kid, Calder - my thirteen-year-old son is on a French class trip to Montreal, Quebec this week. I stayed home sick today and found myself "working from home" in his room because it is the most private space in the house, as well as the warmest. It is the nicest room, and I am now starting to understand why he never leaves it. I also spent time in my daughter's room when she was in Europe this summer. 

I do not poke into their things, but usually read or work on the computer, if I am not tidying up their personalized messes, and just take in the environment. It is not unlike what installation art set out to imbue in art goers who had previously, and historically focused their senses on objects, and which the commercial world later usurped as experiential marketing. When I studied installation art in the late 1980's with the best (Ann Hamilton) this type of art was becoming more popular before it faded, or maybe merged is a better world, into the art-world background. 

One thing I was critical of back in the day was the stand-offish attitude installation art maintained, whereas I was trying to be more interactive/more people-focused, so I am happy to see that Ann's latest work “the event of a thread” at the Park Avenue Armory in New York City, which was up for the last month of 2013, was more in tune with "the people formerly known as the audience."  Just as while it is nice to appreciate the stillness in a living space, it requires the inhabitant to bring it to life.

Freeze Frame

by Drew Martin
I recently saw two artist documentaries back to back, which, at first glance, seem to be miles apart but actually have a strong connection in that the artists featured summarize films in a single frame.

I first watched Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters, followed by Drew: The Man Behind the Poster. Crewdson studied photography at Yale where he was taught a formal approach to medium, which was about finding a poetic truth in the world. What he saw in the big New York shows at the time, however, was work by artists such as Cindy Sherman and Laurie Simmons who were using photography for fictions and constructs. Crewdson's photographs have as much setup and production behind them as movie scenes: he often shuts down city streets and uses film-industry-standard lighting rigs. It makes me think about Krzysztof Kieslowski's comment that he would not make films if he could express himself a better way because of the logistical nightmare behind every scene. The difference in Crewdson's work is that while his shots require the same setup as a movie, he only requires one picture to tell his story. 

Crewdson's work is first and foremost about the narrative. I do not like a narrative approach to art and find it limiting for a viewer who can only appreciate that so I love one comment made in this documentary regarding this, which is "writers like visual arts that are narrative." 

While Crewdson's name and his work are confined to certain art circles, and the artist behind the documentary Drew: The Man Behind the Poster may only be known by name, Drew Struzan, to the film industry and Comic Con enthusiasts, Struzan's work is recognizable to everyone around the world. Struzan is the poster artist behind Hollywood's most memorable films including Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Blade Runner, Police Academy, and the list goes on. Big name directors such as Steven Spielberg even speak about instructing their directors of photography to match the mood and quality that Struzan creates. In his work there are hints of the most precise, and albeit sentimental illustrators, such as Norman Rockwell and Alfons Mucha, but the difference is Struzan's ability to layer two hours of a movie experience, and all the personalities of the movie's stars into one image. It is a dying if not dead art, which the film laments, and attributes to the rise of Photoshop-generated artwork.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

This is So Hard...And it's So Fantastic...Now I've Got Nothing

by Drew Martin
I watched Cutie and the Boxer today, which is a wonderful documentary about the 80-year-old action painter Ushio Shinohara, and his 57-year wife Noriko, who draws and paints cartoons about their 40-year marriage dominated by his big art and drunkenness that gives them a name in the art world but leaves them broke and frustrated. 

In footage from an earlier time, Ushio breaks down crying to his drinking buddies and wails "This is so hard, and it's so fantastic. Now I've got nothing."

Noriko is a calm, patient wife who tries to distance herself from her punkish senior. She has a mildness to her that brings stability to their relationship but also causes her a lot of pain because it is a weakness that yields to her husband's belligerence. Their relationship is complicated but you cannot imagine one without the other. The person most affected by their mess is not Noriko, but their middle-aged son Alex who seems to have inherited all of his father's alcoholism but none of his charisma.

While, like a lot of art documentaries such as Marwencol, Meet the Fokkens, and Naked States, this documentary concludes with a redemptive art show and increased recognition, it is the final slow motion sequence of Noriko pounding Ushio with his trade-mark paint-loaded boxing gloves that won my smile at the end.

Rituals and Sacred Spaces Revisited

by Drew Martin
Here is a video reflection of my involvement in the Rituals and Sacred Spaces show from August 2012 at the Galerie Califia in Horažd’ovice, Czech Republic, which takes a look at the the journey to the show, and the creation of the shrine for 

Related posts:
Rituals and Sacred Spaces of Bohemia
Art Pilgrimage: Rituals and Sacred Spaces in the Czech Republic
Tereza Damcová and the Magical World of Children's Spirits