American Graffiti.

Some people call it ugly. Some people call it art. I call it urban enhancement.

Big Love.

There’s a generally held idea that art that’s overly sentimental, that plays a little too loudly on the heartstrings, is bad art. I think this is a relatively new idea that traces its origins back to 18th century neoclassicism which admired ancient works of art and architecture for their subtlety and lack of color, not realizing that back when they were made those works were brightly painted, but that’s another story. Anyway, yeah, I agree, anything that overdoes the weepiness or, worse, cynically tries to reduce us to a sobbing puddle as an excuse to pry a few extra dollars out of us is bad art. Not feeling, or pretending not to feel, though, can be just as bad. Ray Romano has a joke about how when he goes to buy an anniversary card for his wife he looks for one that says what he would say if he were drunk. It’s funny but also sad that too many of us, especially men, feel uncomfortable with expressing powerful emotions.

That brings me to this:

It’s appropriate that this was done as a mural, that it’s big because the emotions it evokes are so large and so powerful. And yet at the same time it hits that perfect balance. The color palette is subdued and the narrative force, while strong, isn’t over the top.

It’s dramatic without being melodramatic, and while effective at a distance becomes even more so up close where the subtler details reveal themselves.

If my analysis seems somewhat cold and unfeeling, I can say, in my defense, that I feel it’s important for critical purposes to maintain a certain distance, to not be so overcome by emotion that I lose sight of what makes a work like this good. However I’d be perfectly comfortable expressing just how this mural makes me feel if I were drunk.

 

Go Figure.

One of the oldest themes in art is the human figure, or at least one common subset of variations of it. Most works of art history that follow the standard Hegelian model of a linear progression start with a work like the Venus of Willendorf and trace its evolution up through Picasso’s Le Demoiselles D’Avignon and maybe even later. There are many reasons for art’s interest in the human figure including the fact that all art is inherently self-reflective. That is, whatever an artist creates is in essence a self-portrait. Whatever the intended message is the work itself tells us who the artist is.

I’m being deliberately high-falutin’ here to heighten the hilarious impact of this:

What does this tell us about the artist? I’m not sure, although it does make me think about the tension between high and low art, and the tension between art that’s designed to hide the ugly realities of our bodies and art that exposes, even elevates and celebrates, those ugly realities. Consider Jonathan Swift’s poem The Lady’s Dressing Room and the line, “Such gaudy tulips raised from dung.” Then consider Frida Kahlo’s painting Henry Ford Hospital that deliberately, brutally expresses her feelings about a miscarriage with both the reality and symbols.

Let’s come back to the work at hand because there’s a lot going on here. And by “here” of course I mean my head where it’s like I’m on a fun ride going “Whee! Farts! Whee! Meta-textual analysis!” Anyway context is also very important here.

The placement of the work so centrally on a former fast food place, I think elevates it, although you’re probably thinking, “Such low criticism from a critic who sounds pretty high.”

 

Avatar.

Furries are people who have anthropomorphic animal avatars. They draw or commission pictures of their avatars and many dress up as their avatars. Even in the weird wide universe of geekdom they’re sometimes mocked or regarded with suspicion which I don’t understand. I’m not going to stand in the way of anyone’s fursuit of happiness. There was even a really happy story back in March 2016 of Syrian refugees placed at a hotel that was also hosting a furry convention, bringing together two groups that are often subject to unreasonable prejudice.

Anyway I was listening to an interview with Lisa Hanawalt on the Bullseye podcast and was surprised to hear her describe herself as a “furry”. Hanawalt designed the anthropomorphic animal creatures for Bojack Horseman and also wrote a book called The Hot Dog Taste Test which I really, really, really recommend. It’s a collection of illustrated essays more or less connected to food and it’s smart and funny and while the picture of Hanawalt with her family watching Blade II dubbed in Spanish is fantastic, but that’s another story. What surprised me about her describing herself as a furry is in the book she draws herself pretty realistically, never as an animal, but then her drawings of herself and others are still, in the traditional sense of the word, avatars. They are representative, not necessarily idealized but not exactly warts and all either.

And that got me thinking about how we all have a version of ourselves in our imaginations that may or may not match up with how others see us. If we’re uncomfortable with ourselves it’s not necessarily about who we really are but because we don’t like that image of ourselves. Similarly if we’re unhappy with the world around us it’s because it doesn’t match what we want it to be. If we are happy with ourselves and the world around us it’s, hopefully, because how we imagine ourselves and the world matches the way we think it should be.

So what’s your avatar?

The Portrait.

It’s pretty frustrating that Netflix has just announced a whole new cast of The Crown but is holding off on when the new season will be available—for now they’re just saying 2019—but it made me look back at my favorite episode so far—episode 1, season 9, the one called “Assassins”. I’ve read a little bit about art history—just a few dozen books or so, and taken some classes, but I’d never heard of Graham Sutherland, the artist who painted Churchill’s portrait, a portrait Churchill hated, and which was ultimately destroyed. When Churchill called it “a remarkable example of modern art” he meant that as an insult and the audience laughed.

The episode—spoiler alert—shows Mrs. Churchill burning the portrait herself in broad daylight, with Winston himself as a witness, which is what she claimed happened. It wasn’t until 2015 that it was finally revealed that the portrait, which was supposed to hang in Westminster Abbey, was kept in a cellar for years. Then, in the middle of the night, Mrs. Churchill’s secretary Grace Hamblin and her brother took the painting to the brother’s house and burned it there.

So the story as told in The Crown episode is sort of true and sort of not true. That’s interesting because, as Graham Sutherland himself said in 1944,

I feel that an artist’s business is to find an equivalent to the things which give him is idea, an equivalent which derives its life from being a ‘work of art’ rather than a ‘work of nature’…A metamorphosis has to take place.

Here’s a good example of that: Sutherland’s 1975 work Cathedral Of Rocks:

Source: Pinterest

And here’s a photo of the rocks which inspired that painting:

Source: Graham Sutherland : life, work and ideas by Rosalind Thuillier (The Lutterworth Press, 2015)

At the time Sutherland painted Churchill’s portrait he was highly respected in Britain but his reputation diminished, not so much over the portrait but because of his decision to live part of the year in the south of France, although he became highly respected—and well paid—in Italy, where they know a thing or two about painting. British critics raised their opinion of him a little when he started painting regularly in Wales, drawing inspiration from the landscape and painting pictures like the one above and his 1978 Thicket With Self Portrait. It’s good to see him get some attention again because his paintings are remarkable examples of modern art—and I mean that as a compliment.

Source: Elephant & Castle

 

The Handwriting On The Wall.

It’s hard for people to understand the importance of a cartoonist’s handwriting. In the same way melody transforms lyrics, handwriting transforms words and can have a profound impact on how the story is received and understood.

That’s from Lynda Barry’s review of BRAZEN: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World by Pénélope Bagieu, a book of cartoon portraits of historic women, in the March 20, 2018 New York Times Book Review. Barry adds that, since this is a translation from a French book, Bagieu’s original handwriting has been almost entirely removed “even when completely unnecessary”.

That’s a shame and it also got me thinking about the intimacy of handwriting, of written language itself. Letters evolved from pictures and we’re kind of getting back to that with emojs becoming a language of their own.

Lynda Barry is a cartoonist herself and I remember seeing some of her comics when I was in college, in various alternative newspapers that got passed around the dorms. Something I remember from the same time one of my professors told me, “I always recognize your handwriting because I can’t read it,” but that’s another story. I loved Barry’s excruciatingly weird and funny portraits and I never thought about it but there was something special about the way she lettered her comics too.

At the same time I was reading Lynda Barry’s comics I was also reading Arthur Rimbaud for the first time so, as a final send-off to National Poetry Month, here’s a poem of his, translated by George J. Dance.

Vowels

Black A, white E, red I, green U, blue O: you vowels,

Some day I’ll tell the tale of where your mystery lies:

Black A, a jacket formed of hairy, shiny flies

That buzz among harsh stinks in the abyss’s bowels;

 

White E, the white of kings, of moon-washed fogs and tents,

Of fields of shivering chervil, glaciers’ gleaming tips;

Red I, magenta, spat-up blood, the curl of lips

In laughter, hatred, or besotted penitence;

 

Green U, vibrating waves in viridescent seas,

Or peaceful pastures flecked with beasts – furrows of peace

Imprinted on our brows as if by alchemies;

 

Blue O, great Trumpet blaring strange and piercing cries

Through Silences where Worlds and Angels pass crosswise;

Omega, O, the violet brilliance of Those Eyes!

That’s pretty good but I think Lynda Barry deserves the last word.

Source: Lambiek Comiclopedia

 

 

 

Where They Lived.

A question that I’ve been turning over in my head for as long as I’ve been studying art history and the philosophy of art is, what is art, anyway? The other day I walked into the breakroom where I work and on the table there was a banana with a spoon balanced on it. I figured the spoon was left there by the person who brought the banana and when I talked to her later she said yes, she’d put the spoon there so people would know she wasn’t giving away the banana. Whenever someone has food they want to get rid, usually cookies or a cake, of they leave it on one of the breakroom tables, although for a while I had a coworker who liked to go through the food in the fridge and take bites out of peoples’ lunches, but that’s another story.

Anyway I thought that if I’d taken a picture of the banana and spoon it would be, well, just a picture, just like the millions of odd ones that people take and upload every day, but if I printed it and framed it the picture would then be art and if I put it in a gallery it could be really expensive art. I didn’t take the picture and now, writing about it, I regret that.

Source: SF MOMA

There’s an exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art of twenty-three lost bird posters collected by the artist Rigo 23. I haven’t seen it in person but you can see the works online. Here’s one:  I heard about it on an episode of the Bullseye podcast. In the final segment host Jesse Thorn talks about growing up in the area then being forced out by development and rising property prices. The fliers for the lost birds have been preserved but the neighborhood where they were collected is gone. That, and many of the messages, hit me where I live, which is what art should do.

 

It’s Inspiring.

A little over three years ago I took a picture of this graffiti because it made me laugh:

It made me laugh because I had this idea of the artist being really inspired and fired up and then sort of trailing off. And every artist has been there. I know sometimes I feel this sudden surge of energy and start a story and then realize I’m repeating myself and end up sort of trailing off, but that’s another story.

Whenever I think of inspiration I think of this painting of Voltaire.

Source: Wikimedia

It fascinated Kafka who knew a thing or two about inspiration. In a diary entry on February 19, 1911, he wrote,

The special nature of my inspiration in which I, the most fortunate and unfortunate of men, now go to sleep (perhaps, if I can only bear the thought of it, it will remain, for it is loftier than all before), is such that I can do everything, and not only what is directed to a definite piece of work. When I arbitrarily write a single sentence, for instance, “He looked out of the window,” it already has perfection.

from The Basic Kafka

Anyway I feel kind of guilty for laughing because, as I said, we’ve all been there. And here’s the same building now:

Someone was inspired to scribble an aqua-colored tag on the door but mostly, since the earlier tag was painted over, the whole building’s been a blank canvas. Inspiration is a fickle thing and sometimes making a work of art is more work than art, which is why invention is Invention, my dear friends, is 93% perspiration, 6% electricity, 4% evaporation, and 2% butterscotch ripple, as Willy Wonka so wisely said, although sometimes you have to up the percentage of butterscotch for a reason I had in my head a minute ago but now it’s gone and I’m just sort of trailing off.

Judge A Book By Its Cover.

Every year on or around April 1st there’s the International Edible Book Festival which I only learned about because one was held at the Vanderbilt University Library, which is close to where I work. Here are some of the entries from the event:

A popular theme was The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. There were at least five entries based on it.

There were also some creative interpretations of the theme with items inspired by scenes from well-known books.

Or just loose interpretations.

And a lot of clever puns.

My favorites, though, were the ones that went for the most literal interpretation of the idea, creating works that were as readable as they were eatable.

Those last ones reminded me of a quote from Gargantua & Pantagruel by Francois Rabelais, translated by J.M. Cohen, that I have on the wall behind my monitor at work that always reminds me that you are what you read:

The philosophers, preachers, and doctors of your world feed you with fine words through the ears. Here we literally take our teachings orally, through the mouth. Therefore I do not say to you: Read this chapter, understand this gloss. What I say is: Taste this chapter, swallow this gloss. Once upon a time an ancient prophet of the Jewish nation swallowed a book and became a learned man to the teeth. Now you must immediately drink this, and you’ll be learned to the liver. Here, open your jaws.

That’s a literary equivalent of one spicy meatball.

Where We Live.

Recently Vanderbilt University students, together with Habitat For Humanity, put together an open air exhibit on the quad in front of the library. The simple wooden benches were made to raise awareness of homelessness. Students do this every year in the spring, at a time when the homeless are less at risk from freezing but still face challenges.

The exhibit included a pamphlet with some disturbing facts. Homelessness is a concern in most cities, but Nashville’s rapid population growth has made it even more difficult. There have been some efforts to help; all over the city you’ll find people selling The Contributor, a weekly newspaper written and sold by homeless and formerly homeless people, but it’s not able to help everyone.

During the day the unfinished wooden benches stand out against the green grass, but at night they’re transformed. Solar batteries, at a time when the days are getting longer, store and transfer power to them through the night. They remain visible; they may even be more visible. And the placement of the exhibit in the middle of a university campus is especially poignant. This is a place where students, and some faculty and staff, live. It’s where others spend a great deal of their lives. Vanderbilt is a private university, but it’s also part of and aware of the community that surrounds and supports it.

The exhibit is only temporary, unlike the issue of homelessness which will still be with us.

 

 

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