Thursday, December 10, 2020

Light and Fire

by Drew Martin
It has taken me a while to comprehend that pretty much the whole artworld has slipped into the realm of peripheral art, which is a little shocking because that's my schtick. For me it was a matter of growing up in New Jersey, in the periphery of the artworld, ground zero - MoMA.

The rings of this MoPA banner logo represent the radio and television waves, 
which I pictured in my head as a kid, emanating from Manhattan. And now, finally, New Yorkers and inhabitants of other major art centers are having the same kind of experience. So close and yet so far away. 

I think we will see two kinds of movement in the artworld...a gravitational pull of dedicated audiences back to the centers, and a continuing expansion of the virtual for everyone else.

Last night I was walking by the Lichtundfire in the Lower East Side and noticed them getting ready for a poetry reading by Jonathan Goodman. I stopped in and spoke with Jonathan and the director, Priska Juschka, but I couldn't stay because I had to go across the street to make dinner. They encouraged me to stream the event on Facebook, which I did. It was a very meta experience. I listened to the reading and when Jonathan took breaks, I looked out the window to see the audience going for a smoke down on the street, below.

I really liked Goodman's poetry, and the start of the feed was really touching. There was Priska, on her knees talking 
through a KN95 mask to the laptop seated on the chair in the front row, not really knowing who she was talking to but sending a message that could have been from all of humanity to an unknown alien civilization. It was very first contact - thoughtfully explaining it was their first time streaming an event and despite the challenges she said it was also new and fun.

You can learn more about Lichtundfire, and about the current show Quantum Sphere, a five-year-anniversary group show, from their website,

Here are a few photos I took with my phone of my favorite pieces, which do not capture the whole show:

Click here to watch a recording of the event.

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Gold Rush

by Drew Martin
What were the first human interactions with and reactions to gold that set us down the path were we worshiped it as a standard of beauty and a symbol of wealth and power? Did a landscape of pushed-up, lackluster rocks reveal a vein of gold that resembled a lightning streak? Did it bleed out of stones around the first fires like shiny blood? Did it represent eternity as it lay untarnished among rotting wood and decaying animals? Did its brightness in the sun, make people think it was from the sun itself?

A surprising fact is that gold did come from stars and not, like diamonds, from any process on Earth. But the Earth did concentrate gold dust.

Most of the matter in the universe was created during the Big Bang, but gold and other precious metals were not. The prevailing theory is that gold is produced by the collision of neutron stars, and a lot of it...enough to generate a mass about ten times the size of our moon, per event.

So maybe there is something out of this world about gold that we respond to in a profound way that has driven humans to hysteria, fueling hundreds of years of colonial slavery and looting. During Spain's grip on the Americas, about three million ships carrying gold back to Europe sank to the bottom of the ocean - an estimated $771 trillion of gold buried at sea.

A couple years ago I visited the Museo Oro del Peru. The range of uses and beauty of the gold on display is staggering but is only a hint of the treasures once cherished by the Incan people and envied by Europeans. 

The following are some pictures I took with my phone during my visit:

Outside the museum are iron Spanish cannons. Their power and purpose is gone. They now resemble works of art with surfaces mottled by impressionist sculptors.

Inside the museum are many displays of weapons...these doughnut-like porras de piedra below, are stone bludgeons once affixed to wooden handles and used by Incan warriors to defend their land and protect their treasures.

Monday, December 7, 2020

35 Centuries of Glass

by Drew Martin
If you are reading this post on your phone, it is very likely you are seeing it through Gorilla Glass developed by Corning Incorporated, in Corning, New York.

Corning is the center of glass research and development in the United States and is also a cute little town along a beautiful mountain range and the Chemung River. It is also home to the amazing Corning Museum of Glass, which I have always wanted to go to, and was finally able to visit on the way to Niagara Falls this summer when travel was restricted to only in-state (New York) trips because of the Coronavirus.

The Museum is a fascinating combination of galleries, interactive displays, and a full schedule of glass-making demonstrations, which are not simply tourist gimmicks. The one I saw was run by two young women who were creating artwork for a local installation.

We are so accustomed to glass that we forget how magical it is, and this museum does a great job showing how versatile and ancient but also modern it is as an art form.

Even though I spent several hours at the Museum, I could have easily stayed the whole day exploring "35 centuries of glass galleries". 

Here as some of the pictures I took with my phone. The first two images are of the Continuous Mile, explained here from the Museum website.

"Continuous Mile took Liza Lou longer than a year to make with a team of more than 50 beadworkers from several townships in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. The monumental sculpture is composed of a coiled and stacked cotton rope, measuring a mile in length, sewn with more than 4.5 million glossy black glass beads. It is a work about work..."


I also love this window of a house I passed during my morning run in Corning.

Sunday, December 6, 2020

Measure of the Earth

by Drew Martin
For a human-made object there is a person or team of people who conceived, designed, and created it. And then there is the audience...possibly a consumer, or maybe simply an observer. Part of the fascination of the viewer is understanding how this object came to be. What materials comprise it? What was the process? How long did it take? How much did it cost? What is its purpose?

If this object is small enough, and we are permitted to get near it and touch it, we can walk around it, and maybe even roll it around in our hands. If it is large, such as a building, we can also walk around it but might need to properly view it from a hilltop at a great distance or another edifice, and perhaps we can enter it and ascend to its top floor.  But it still does not take that long to understand its dimensions and place in its surroundings.

Imagine this object is a spaceship and you are placed inside it. You would not have any clue about its shape or size unless you left the location where you first found yourself and walked around it, and maybe even did a spacewalk so you could get a good look at it, the same way you would walk around a sculpture in a gallery, plaza, or garden, to take it in from every angle. 

Think about your favorite sculpture. Now think about having never seen it before, and being place somewhere on its surface, but you are the size of a flea. How would you understand its shape, size and placement? If its size is far more massive than you, how would you ever accurately get to know its dimensions and mass?

Replace the human-made object with something from nature and the questions change in terms of how it came to be, but understanding its form is still a matter of observation that requires our mobility and senses. Scale up a rock, to a continent and the challenge is the same. You need more time and input to understand its shape and size. Scale it up to a planet and you will find a level of mystery and misunderstanding that will evoke creation myths and ideas that challenge reality. 

For thousands of years of human civilization, our planet Earth was an unknown object that, at best, was depicted in crude maps. It has only been about half a century that we were able to photograph it from its orbit. And even when scientists from the past agreed it was round, they had no real understanding of its precise size. And once they concluded it was a globe of certain dimensions, there were still two theories by the 17th Century that questioned its true shape.

The first approach, supported by René Descartes in France, was that Earth was egg shaped, narrower at the equator and elongated at the poles. This was countered by Sir Isaac Newton in England, that our planet bulged at the equator and was flatter at the poles. Descartes, the more philosophical of the two, approached the issue with a mixture of science and wild thinking. Newton, more scientifically diligent, had reached his answer through mathematical deduction.  

This debate had far-reaching political and national interests. It is no wonder France and England locked horns on the issue - both were big colonial powers with invested pride in their greatest minds and nations' scientific achievements. The truth was that Newton's reasoning was more modern and scientific but for a French scientist to embrace it, would be unpatriotic bordering on treason. So the two nations literally stuck to their guns. 

The reason why this mattered at all, considering that most people do not pay much mind to such topics, actually reached far beyond the scientific community and was indeed extremely practical. Colonial powers relied heavily on maritime accuracy to get from their country to their colonies and back. Many (stolen) riches and lives were at stake and depended on making transatlantic voyages in wind-powered, wooden boats. A perfect sphere, on which degrees of longitude and latitude were established, would be smooth sailing in terms of destination points. But this global location network was off. And scientists noticed something was different about how a pendulum clock that was calibrated with a certain accuracy in Europe behaved quite differently at the equator. So in order to correct their perceived anomalies, it was crucial to get a precise measurement of how the Earth was truly shaped. To do this required triangulation, the science behind our modern-day GPS navigation. 

Triangulation is a field we take for granted, especially when we considered that more than three hundred years ago there were no satellites or even planes. So triangulation meant creating a super straight baseline for miles along the ground, and using known heights (of mountains and volcanoes) to calculate the curvature of the Earth in order to adjust the degrees of longitude and latitude. Latitude was the most urgent to understand because that is where the precision in destination mattered most in a transatlantic voyage.

I recently finished A Measure of the Earth by 
Larrie D. Ferreiro, which is a rollercoaster ride of the first international scientific expedition, the Geodesic Mission (sponsored by Spain and France) in the 1700s, to Ecuador (then Peru) to measure a degree of latitude. But this expedition, for the most part, looked anything but scientific. Baseline towers were vandalized by the locals, lines of credit were wasted on extravagant accommodations, some of the scientists became idle with all the delays, or were battered by the field conditions, intoxicated in local affairs, and caught up in brawls and lawsuits, all of which jeopardized their goal. 

Spoiler alert - the scientists finally and pretty accurately get their measurement, which actually supports Newton's prediction. Some went on to continue contributing to the fields of their interests. While some of the lesser important members of the expedition were abandoned with no way to return home.

Despite all the challenges and moments of failure, the eventual success of the mission inspired future international scientific enterprises. "The most famous of these...were the cooperative voyages from 1761 to 1769 to observe the transit of Venus, so as to establish its distance from the sun to allow more precise calculations for planetary astronomy. Scientists from Britain, France, Russia, and Austria coordinated their observations around the world and corresponded with each other about the results, despite the intervening Seven Years War (1756 - 1763) that pitted their nations against each other."

The Geodesic Mission had many other positive results. It led to the concept of a standard system of measurement, which evolved into the metric system. And witnessing the effects of smallpox across South America led to mass inoculations against pandemic and endemic diseases. The mission was also a revelation from an anthropological point of view. South America had been off limits to the rest of the world because Spain, the superpower that dominated it, wanted to keep it in the dark. Reports by the French scientists about the people and customs of the regions to which they traveled painted a better picture of the lifestyles and achievements of people under Spanish rule. 

My favorite story about the expedition is that one of the scientists used the term "equator" so much and spoke of the "people of the equator" that when this region gained independence, it naturally became the name of the country - Ecuador.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Butterfly People

by Drew Martin
I thought it was about time to revisit this blog. In a quickening world of Insta posts, it is important to take a step back for a bit more thoughtful review after a good read.

I just finished reading Butterfly People by Columbia University professor of History, William Leach. It is a fascinating read of a bygone era, when people traveled the world to collect butterflies and moths. But it is so much more than that because it happened in the mid to late 19th Century, when industrialization and the progress of railroads brought city people closer to a kind of nature they never experienced before but which also led to its destruction.

It took me a while to get engaged with the personalities behind this phenomenon, but I really liked the bigger picture ideas Leach expressed up front, and periodically throughout. Perhaps I read too far into this thought, but it sounded like he was suggesting that Americans, who may have been reluctant to Darwin's newly proposed theory of evolution (and some still are), actually embraced it as a tool to help explain the thousands of species of butterflies brought to their attention by the collectors, especially because the study of butterflies, Lepidopterology (or as one correspondent wrote - Butterflyology) detailed everything from wing veins (wing venation) to the comparative anatomy of their genitalia. Not to mention the magical transformation of the sluggish leaf-chomping worm into a beautifully-colored fluttering insect with only a feeding tube instead of a mouth. Especially mind-boggling is the fact that the butterfly remembers its former self and lays its eggs on the very same type of leaf it previously dined as a caterpillar.

I really liked how Leach explained the parallel rise of fascination with the natural world in this part of American history along with the aesthetics of the new industrial world.

"From the 1850s on, a human-made spectrum of color appeared not only in exhibits of world's fairs but in the latest fashions worn by visitors to the fairs, as well as in machine-made goods transformed by industrial design, dead things endowed with the appeal of living forms. Whether Americans were able to reconcile these to worlds of color for themselves, or whether they even cared or thought about it, is difficult (if not impossible) to establish. Did they prefer the unexpected and perishable tints and shades of living things to the "permanent" and "fast" palette of machine-produced things, the blue in a butterfly wing to the same blue in a magazine ad? did they perceive artifactual red as more "beautiful" than organic red? Or did they view them as of equal value, together forming a whole no one had ever before experienced?"

And there is much talk of aesthetics, not only of the butterflies (and moths) but also how to record them, especially when photographic processes began to challenge the beautifully observed drawings by artists such as Mary Peart (above). I love the discussion in which Leach engages this topic.

"William Holland's photos may have attracted a new legion of amateurs, but in time, and in the manner of all such photos, they would also promote distance from butterflies and from the natural world generally by "suppressing" the handwork or the illustrating skills of individual naturalists. In contrast, by depending on their own artistic craft, both Mary Peart and Herman Strecker engaged butterflies more intimately and closely than if they had photographed them, relying on machinery devised by others. 'The correlation of nature-study and drawing is so natural and inevitable,' Anna Comstock argued in her popular Handbook of Nature Study, 'that it needs never be revealed to the pupil. When the child is interested in studying any object, he enjoys illustrating his observations with drawings; the happy absorption of children thus engaged is a delight to witness.' By enlisting the child's own ability, sketching or painting led to a level of seeing and immersion greater than any reached by those who lacked the skill or discipline to draw or paint."

While this book is primarily a reflection of all the ups and downs of obsessive collecting, the conclusive, sour note is that the interest sparked by the butterfly enthusiasts led to economic entomology, which "turned natural history into a killing machine, wrenching it away from its ecological and aesthetic-oriented roots" with "schemes to slaughter insects wholesale..."

"The growth of economic entomology and of laboratory science, and the increasing preoccupation with mere taxonomy, broke the connection between beauty and science that natural history had tied together. the result was to leave science to the professionals, and the beauty of nature to the amateurs - and to the commercial market, the bauble stores, and the spectacle theater."

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Tom of Finland: They Called it Filth. It Became a Revolution.

by Drew Martin
I haven't posted in a long time. I've been inward. But I was really moved by the film Tom of Finland, which I saw yesterday - a biopic about Touko Valio Laaksonen (1920-1991).

In terms of cultural influence, I am not sure there is anyone who matches Touko because his drawings created a liberated environment for what was in his day a crime* - being gay. I doubt the LGBT community would be as advanced today without his work and I would even go so far as to say he invented gay pride. 

Touko is famous for his "stylized highly masculinized homoerotic fetish art" which is one way of saying - he drew what turned him on. And by drawing his fantasy, he presented to the world a healthy view of a taboo culture. As we see in the film, it was incredibly dangerous to be gay.** The police searches were unrelenting, the arrests were brutal, and punishment was either jail time or being put into an asylum for "treatment."

The film could have been a little less obvious in parts but it certainly shows his journey. I like how it does not focus too much on the artwork. It's not a parade of drawings but rather it shows his evolution of first creating the images for himself, then using them for hook-ups (which wasn't always a success), and finally as something he put out in the world, which changed the lives of many of his fans.  


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: