Sunday, January 15, 2017

Minimalism the Movie: There's No There There

by Drew Martin
The term “minimalism” came from Richard Wollheim’s criticism of the lack of content in the work produced by artists in the 60s who reacted to abstract expressionists' emotionally-loaded paintings by creating sterile objects with industrial materials. That being said, I have always welcomed the term to describe my decades of yearning for simplicity: satisfaction in small spaces and joy from simple activities. In fact, around the turn of the millennium, I even created a magazine called Min, which was distributed every full moon to a small audience. It was a project to explore what minimalism could be and was a reaction to magazines such as Real Simple, which were just like every other magazine in terms of production, size and distribution. Min was only one-page that over a year and a half devolved into a state of nothingness. Shown here is the December 11, 2000 issue.

So I thought I would like, if not love, Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things but I found it to be a bogus film and very disappointing. While the premise is simple living, it is basically a road trip film about two buddies, Ryan Nicodemus and Joshua Fields Millburn, who drive from book signing to book signing, and stay in hotels in places such as Las Vegas in order to promote and sell their book about getting more out of life through a minimalist lifestyle. Not life-long conscientious citizens, they confess to having been superficial millennials chasing their own, self-imposed financial dreams through corporate retail jobs. 

Their brand of minimalism is really a redemption minimalism to self-righteously set the record straight that they are no longer the valueless capitalist consumers they once were. Ok, but they want you to buy their book because they say it will add value to your life. That stinging contradiction, and what feels like a personal passing fad of decluttered liberation, makes you realize that they are actually happier now not because of their so-called minimalist lifestyles but because instead of selling cellphones and clothing they are now peddling their own product, a self-help book.

I actually think it is great that they (and a handful of other yuppies like them interviewed in the film) 'saw the light of day,' but who are they kidding? The idea of living a simple life and criticizing indulgence is thousands of years old and is central to many religions. This is definitely the first time I ever quoted the Bible. Matthew 21:12 - And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves. When MIllburn stands in a barren landscape and dramatically reads from their book, it sounds heavily borrowed from the narration of Fight Club (1999 film based on 1996 book), which includes lines such as, "Like so many others, I had become a slave to the IKEA nesting instinct."

It seems to specifically be a millennial folly - to be distracted and not have listened and then think one has developed an idea and want to take credit and be rewarded for it. This is the case here when there is no mention of the teachings of Jesus or 
Siddhārtha/Buddha, countless monks and naturalists, and what the hippies who begat them had attempted in the 60s/70s. During my frugal college days back in the late 80s and then a “minimalist” lifestyle that followed: living in a tiny trailer in the mountains of California when I was a vegan and worked on an organic farm (that I commuted to on my bike), couch-surfing up and down the coast, hitch-hiking and squatting around Europe, I always had the teachings of Gandhi on my mind. I cannot imagine trying to take credit for simplicity, or feeling like I had ‘discovered’ that lifestyle. This film has made me rethink the term selling out, which used to mean contradicting oneself for profit ‘after’ making a name for oneself for something worthy of respect. What we have here is a simultaneous selling out by merchandizing the message of minimalism.

There is kind of an absurd attack on America for brainwashing people to over-consume, and that we are just victims of this power. Sure there are many companies and forces at play here to support excessive consumerism but to bow to that is simply a matter of stupidity and weakness to personal desires for junk food and cheap products. America actually has a strong history and identity with minimalism through native tribes, protestant puritans, and groups such as the Amish and Mennonites. And nowhere is there such a national ideal of the austere loner living off the land. We treasure the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau who contemplate solitude.

Am I being a bit too critical of this neo-minimalist movement? A quick search just now led me to Kyle Chayka’s July 26, 2016 New York Times Magazine article “The Oppressive Gospel of ‘Minimalism” in which he concludes “The fetishized austerity and performative asceticism of minimalism is a kind of ongoing cultural sickness. We misinterpret material renunciation, austere aesthetics and blank, emptied spaces as symbols of capitalist absolution, when these trends really just provide us with further ways to serve our impulse to consume more, not less.”

And he points to Arielle Bernstein’s March 25, 2016 article in the Atlantic, Marie Kondo and the Privilege of Clutter: The Japanese author’s guide to “tidying up” promises joy in a minimalist life. For many, though, particularly the children of refugees and other immigrants, it may not be so simple.

One part of the film I did appreciate was something Nicodemus says during a talk to a small crowd. He tells the story (or maybe I should say parable) of a man he met torn by the idea of having less but not wanting to get rid of his book collection. Nicodemus explained to him that he should not part with his collection if it brought value to him.

And I like the inclusion of a mash-up speech by Jimmy Carter, who is the most thoughtful American president I have lived under. Carter, who was immensely disliked and blamed a lot, was actually a president who walked the talk: he was the first president to walk from the Capitol to the White House in the post-inauguration ceremony parade, and I remember him on television urging Americans to save energy by turning down their heat and putting on sweaters.

Good evening, it’s clear that the true problems of our nation are much deeper, deeper than gasoline lines or energy shortages. Deeper,  deeper than inflation or recession. In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We've learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose. This is not a message of happiness or reassurance but it is the truth and it is a warning.

The full, unedited Crisis of Confidence speech from July 15, 1979 by Jimmy Carter can be found here:

Maybe the self-proclaimed minimalists in this film have really embodied Wollheim's slur in the same way that the American yoga craze is void of the spiritual practices and disciplines that defined it in ancient India. People now tidy up their apartments and throw out a few old outfits and proclaim, "I am a minimalist!"

Friday, January 13, 2017

Dollification: Men in Rubber Masks

by Drew Martin

One of the many interesting aspects of the documentary I watched last night, Men in Rubber Masks, is the vow by the eldest of five kids to keep alive his late father’s vision and unique business that his mother and siblings run from their home. The company FemSkin was started by their patriarch after their cabinet-making business failed, and is “recognized as the innovative leader in the application and advancement of silicone prosthetics for the transgendered community worldwide.” The documentary specifically focuses on anatomically correct female-body rubber suits for men. Unlike the family’s unprofitable go at carpentry, the jiggly silicone outfits are selling like hotcakes out of their backwaters Florida workshop to clients in Japan, England, Germany, even Siberia, Russia. One of the sons takes a break from airbrushing red the areolae around the nipples of an outfit to explain that Germans are the biggest fans and also give the most critical feedback for enhancements. Maybe, aside from being a pretty sexually adventurous nation, they recognize something in the top part of the suit, which was cast from a German woman, and was seamlessly blended with a lower half from a Brazilian woman.

The film crew documents the lives of a few men. One is a young man in England who has a girlfriend and uses the opportunity of the film to show his private habit to a wider audience: his slightly baffled friends and then his neighbors. There is also a former hotrod builder, and current forklift driver, who has six daughters. He explains that he was never attractive enough to get a hot girlfriend so he slips into his female character to experience the sensations of being close to such a woman. Wife #2 is a little worried but her man claims it helps him get closer to his daughters as we see him in his female kit getting his fingernails painted by his 16-year-old girl. 

We get to spend some time at the sixth global meeting for maskers held in a hotel in Minneapolis. The eldest son behind FemSkin attends to show off the latest model and explain where they will make improvements, such as the hammocked section between the breasts, which needs to be tighter fitting. The maskers, small in numbers but big in heart, are delighted to meet one another. Many have only interacted via websites for their tribe. They even go out to a club and mix with the locals. Some college-aged kids seem pretty fine with it but not everyone is pleased. One young man confronts them on the street and there is a bit of a stand-off.

The most interesting perspective of this kind of dollification is from a 70-year-old real estate millionaire in Southern California. He shows us the ropes of how to get suited up, which includes a lot of baby powder (so you don’t get stuck). 

His cheery and very curvy California-girl alter ego amazes the old man inside. He stares in the mirror and is baffled by how good he looks. Formerly married and living with his daughter, he explains that when he tried the dating scene he often went out with women in their 60s and even their 50s and although many of them were in good shape, none could compare to his silicone lady-self. The film ends with him going out for a stroll by the boardwalk. One woman and her male partner stop to check him out and squeeze his breasts, and comment on how real they feel. A couple blondes stop on their beach cruisers as well to fulfill their curiosity, and end up having a lively conversation with him.

It’s weird but like in a cool weird way. It’s like. “Whoa, what’s that? You know. You want to check it out.

After the encounters he remarks what an amazing time he had during his first public appearance.

Monday, January 9, 2017

The Secret of Drawing: Drawing by Design

by Drew Martin 
In the final installation titled Drawing by Design of the four-part series, The Secret of Drawing, BBC host Andrew Graham-Dixon takes a look at drawing’s most practical application; design. For the designer, drawing is the starting point of an idea that can be realized as a product such as a building, furniture, or fashion. And while that does indeed seem practical, we see several artists at work during this hour who have flights of fancy before directing their ideas into something that can in fact be made. 

Graham-Dixon first sits with Mark Fisher who has made a career of designing stage sets for bands such as U2, The Rolling Stones, and Pink Floyd. They are grand structures that can be set up and broken down in a matter of hours – temporary, experiential, fully-loaded architectural stages that transform sports stadiums into music venues for thousands of fans. Graham-Dixon calls Fisher a real “Renaissance man” for his range of talents, and they both acknowledge the influence of Leonardo da Vinci. 

In this show we get an introduction to the history of perspective through the work of Filippo Brunelleschi and Piero della Francesca. The latter referred to perspective as his mistress, when his wife tried to call him to bed at night, away from his studies and drawings/paintings.

This segues to an exploration of architecture with the fantastic ideas of the French architect Étienne-Louis Boullée, and the brat pack group of architects who went by the name of Archigram, which influenced the likes of Zaha Hadid, and Ron Arad. 

Arad explains how computers changed his profession.

"I always thought as an arrogant student that you can only design what you can draw. You know? If you can’t draw, how can you design? It’s different now with computers because you can design things that you couldn’t possible draw."

"In the old days there was, you know, the drawings, and then the drafting technical drawings, and then there used to be the artisans – model  makers that make the prototypes. Now with computers, and computer drawings, and with computer models, there’s no middle man."

And finally, we round off the show with a look at fashion drawings.

We see the drawings of Julie Verhoeven who is a fashion designer. I liked seeing her at work because of a unique approach whereby she spends weeks accumulating a mass of visual stimuli before she puts all her ideas together as drawings and then she barely takes the pen off the page because she says she doesn’t want to break the line of her thought.

The full documentary of this fourth and final episode can be watched here:

Sunday, January 8, 2017

The Secret of Drawing: All in the Mind

by Drew Martin
The Secret of Drawing: All in the Mind is the third of a four-part series from the BBC about drawing, which I have been enjoying and writing about. In this episode the host, Andrew Graham-Dixon, takes a closer look at how the Western tradition drawing became synonymous with accurate representation and the empirical mind, followed by the reaction to move away from it. 

We visit Sarah Simblet, professor of life drawing at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art at Oxford, who makes a distinction between her detailed anatomical drawings and some of her more abstract work.

"With these I suppose it's a process of looking, seeing, thinking, understanding, gaining knowledge of something that exists in the world...with these, it's really drawing an's like an outwards breath."

One thing that Graham-Dixon pushes in this episode is which part of the human mind artists call on and how much of the inner self they reveal. He explains the efforts made by Picasso and other artists such as André Masson to undo their schooling and work in a child-like state. But first he explains how drawing has often been a kind of secret diary for many artists. A more revealing expression can sometimes be seen in the under-drawings of the more proper frescoes that hide them, like a thought being buried in the subconscious.

We hear from John Tchelenko, the head of drawing and cognition at Camberwell College of Art in London, who studies the way the eye and hand interact with the mind in order to understand how artists observe three-dimensional objects and depict them on a two-dimensional surface. And then we take another look at cave paintings and what they imply about the mind of early humans.

There is also an interesting chat with the illustrator David Shrigley. When Graham-Dixon talks about surrealist concepts of subconscious-drawing Shrigley adds that he feels like he is part of the human collective consciousness when he is drawing.

Graham-Dixon covers a lot of different ideas in this episode. He expounds upon the notion that artists are often more emotionally sensitive, and then segues to the artwork of psychiatric patients, and then, more broadly, outsider art.

Finally, we meet up with Michael Landy, who seems to be an incarnation of Graham-Dixon's kick-off thesis for the show. Landy is a conceptual artist and one of the Young British Artists. In his piece Break Down he shredded, dismantled, and crushed his earthly possessions including all of his artwork. What followed this performance was of great interest to Graham-Dixon because Landy started over again by drawing. His first drawings were of weeds. They were beautiful, like something Albrecht Dürer would have drawn 500 years ago. And then he made more intimate and emotional pieces, like a series of drawings of his father.

The full documentary of this third episode can be watched here:

Saturday, January 7, 2017

The Secret of Drawing: Storylines

by Drew Martin
Pictured here is The Great Wave off Kanagawa from the early 1830s by Katsushika Hokusai who is considered to be the father of manga, which means "random sketches" and is an art form that actually can be traced back more than 700 years earlier to the Scrolls of Frolicking Animals from by Toba Sōjō, a Japanese artist-monk-astronomer.

These two artists are featured in the BBC production, The Secret of Drawing: Storylines, the second episode in a four-part series dedicated to the art of drawing. The writer and presenter of the show, Andrew Graham-Dixon starts the show off with by saying,

Human beings need stories, myths, tales, legends... And history shows that the drawing has played just as crucial a part in satisfying that basic need as the word. But there’s a big difference between what happens when you tell a story and what happens when you draw it. And I think the great French artist Henri Matisse put his finger on it when he said that whereas the writer has to use the shared language of speech, every artist uses his (and her) own self-invented visual language so every element of every story that he (or she) draws out is shot through with his (or her) own personality and idiosyncrasies.

Graham-Dixon explores the idea of drawing as storytelling through American comic book artists, British political cartoonists, Japanese manga and anime creators, a Hollywood storyboard illustrator, and an old-school French animator. He seems genuinely fascinated by the comic book culture in America and the artists who produce such a wide range of material. Surprisingly, for me, he dwells on what he sees as a dark streak throughout all the American comics, even with Peanuts, whose creator [Charles Schulz] he introduces as a depressive. 

Graham-Dixon adds to the mix some of the greatest political cartoonists from the 1700 and 1800s, including William Hogarth and James Gillray of England. Hogarth's Gin Lane is a loaded scene with layers of narrative and social commentary, such as a drunk mother dropping her baby. Gillray continued the tradition but took it to another level by perfecting the cartoon with a quick read, greatly exaggerated reality, and sharp wit, so much so that his Plum-pudding in Danger, which mocks George III and Napoleon, is considered one of the best political cartoons of all time, and has been continuously copied, and referenced every since.

Martin Rowson, a modern British political cartoonist a.k.a. visual journalist interviewed in the show offers,

We read images in an entirely different way to the way we read text. Ultimately, the most effective, quickest, sharpest instrument for getting a political point across is using a cartoon.

Graham-Dixon takes this a step further by introducing artists such as Goya and Picasso who made very politically charged works such as Goya's Disasters of War, and Picasso's cartoon-like mockery of Franco by depicting him as a penis-turd-creature, and ultimately his Guernica.

While all these styles and artists are fascinating, I feel like the part of the show that is most aligned with what I thought the entire series would be about is when he interviews the motion-picture storyboard artist, J. Todd Anderson.

"It’s my job to get what’s in a director’s head onto paper. It’s not my job to create the shots. It’s my job to interpret their language into a visual language."

"It’s very important that I get as close to the images in their brain onto paper so that everybody when they walk on the set is making the same movie. They’re not all imagining what’s going on." 

Graham-Anderson explores the early start of animated movies and then concludes with Sylvain Chomet, a French animator who expresses that animations should not always be directed for children, but rather that creative, youthful soul still inside all of us.

The full documentary of this second episode can be watched here:

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

The Secret of Drawing: The Line of Enquiry

by Drew Martin
The Secret of Drawing: The Line of Enquiry is the first of four episodes from 2005 by the BBC, which takes a closer look at drawing. This episode begins with the narrator and host, Andrew Graham-Dixon, saying:

Once upon a time, the ability to draw was seen as the first and most essential skill of any artist. But in the age of the unmade bed and the pickled shark, drawing is widely perceived as an old-fashioned activity. Many modern art schools don’t even teach it; preferring to arm their students with digital or video cameras. I’d like to challenge the tedious modern prejudice that it’s trendy not to draw, and that those who do draw are sad reactionaries stuck in a dead past. I think the exact opposite is true. Drawing is the single most fruitful and vital artistic skill at work in the world today.

I really like this series but Graham-Dixon's unmade bed and pickled shark comment takes a jab at Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst despite the fact that Emin always speaks very highly about life drawing and that she is quite good at it, and drawing is essential to Hirst's creative process. The drawing section of his website starts off with this passage:

Drawing has always been an essential part of Hirst’s creative process. Whilst his sculptural works are initially thought out through detailed sketches – often including precise dimensions and fabrication notes – he also draws obsessively for the sake of drawing. Numbering over 1, 500, this body of work points to Hirst’s use of the medium as a means of refining and exploring the ideas that sit at the heart of his entire artistic output. He also describes it as a good way to explore complicated ideas without incurring the costs involved in the fabrication of new works.

Otherwise, I love the insight of this BBC production, which tries to elevate the act of drawing to scientific research and a visual philosophy.

The first artist interviewed is actually one of Britain's leading heart surgeons, Francis Wells, who uses drawing to not only prepare for the details of an operation but to also explain a replay of the procedure to his team. He actually uses blood from the open chest cavity of the patient to draw on paper while he waits for the heart to stabilize.

Not surprisingly, Wells is fascinated by the drawings of Leonardo da Vinci. He studies them to see what da Vinci was trying to explain through his heart studies, and even uses things he has learned from the centuries-old works for his modern surgery. 

Graham-Dixon starts to formulate a kind of da Vinci code question...Do you think these drawings contain within them other things that people haven’t quite tweaked yet? To which Wells replies:

Well I am sure there are. One has to be careful in not romancing it too much and saying that the solutions to all of our problems are here. They’re not.  But I think the essence of what we‘re seeing is someone who is absolutely, conspicuously honest. They’re searching for the truth. Nowadays, by thinking about his observations that he made and taking it seriously, it can take you down lines of thought that you might work out yourself with other information that’s available.

What follows is a look at the start of a fascinating group in 1603 Rome. The Accademia dei Lincei (The Academy of the Linxes, for its all-seeing eye) gave "new impetus to the Renaissance cross-pollination of fine art and the natural sciences." It is even credited for having established the ground rules for empirical science through the Paper Museum, a collection of thousands of drawings of natural and man-made objects. The founder of the Paper Museum, Cassiano dal Pozzo encouraged that we look at everything with the understanding that sometimes insight comes from when you focus on just one thing. Drawing it again and again to get to its very essence.

No progress can ever be made without finding out everything you can about everything there is.

And yes, that is a drawing of a man with a penis on his head. Apparently, at one time it was a sign of good luck.

The great 18
th century scientist-artist George Stubbs followed in the footsteps of da Vinci's curiosity and Cassiano's thoroughness and in turn, discovered much more by studying horses than he needed to know to paint horses. Through comparative anatomy he asked the question that Charles Darwin answered in the theory of evolution; about how humans relate to other species.

This one-hour episode covers even more ground, including John Russell who drew the moon in the 18th century through a telescope with such accuracy that his five-foot-square drawing could easily be mistaken for a photograph, and John James Audobon whose book The Birds of America is one of the most impressive (and massive) collection of drawings ever printed.

The remainder of the hour covers the drawings of J.M.W. Turner, John Constable and several other artists.

The full documentary of this first episode can be watched here: