American Graffiti.

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

So Complain Already.

You know how some people get an entry-level job somewhere, doing some simple menial task that doesn’t require much training or education, and through ambition and hard work gradually move up to something better, perhaps even rising to the very top of the organization?
Jason was not one of those people.
He started in the mailroom and stayed there for about ten years. Job openings and other opportunities and other opportunities for advancement came and went and Jason missed them, mostly because he wasn’t interested, and also he was rarely around. A lot of those simple, menial tasks had to be done by other people when they could find the time because Jason wouldn’t do them, or he’d start them and leave them unfinished. No one could tell when he came and went because he brought a radio in with him and would play it while working, but frequently I’d go into the mailroom and find the radio on but no Jason. If he was in there and I had a few minutes I might talk to him a bit, share a joke, say something about the song on the radio. I think Jason’s disappearances and generally not doing his job were allowed to slide because people liked him, and before he was hired we’d been without a regular person in the mailroom for so long that some people had simply absorbed some of the mailroom work into their regular routines so there wasn’t always that much for him to do.
Jason was always upbeat, too. I’d ask him how he was doing and he’d say, “Aw, I can’t complain.”
One day I laughed and said, “You know, I think I’d worry if you could complain.” He glared at me, and that was my first glimpse of a darker side of Jason.
Things started to change. People got annoyed with having to do Jason’s work when things got busy, and when someone needed him to do something they couldn’t necessarily find him. There was an office coffee club–anyone who wanted coffee had to pay to join. It wasn’t much, a couple of bucks a week per person. Jason didn’t join but he was regularly caught getting coffee and only stopped after several warnings. He still didn’t join but always had a cup of coffee when he was around. That mystery was only solved when we all got a message from a department on a different floor that if “we” didn’t stop stealing their coffee they’d call security.
Jason didn’t have coffee anymore, and people stopped doing his work. Then in a meeting to review departmental responsibilities he asked when someone was going to be hired to help him out because he was so overwhelmed.
“You do less than anybody who’s ever worked in the mailroom,” I snapped, and I knew what I was talking about. I’d started in the mailroom.
A decision was made at the upper levels that Jason’s time could be shared with another department, in a job where he’d not only have responsibility but he’d be working as part of a team. When he showed up in the mailroom he was grouchy and was frequently overheard telling delivery people he was being watched over all the time.
Then one Wednesday morning we all got an email that simply said, “Jason has quit.” There was no notice, no warning. No one heard anything from him after that. I feel bad for saying this but I think we were all relieved.

Most people look at graffiti and see a crime. And I understand that. Sometimes, though, when I see something good, something that clearly took thought and effort, I see hard work and ambition. I see–and I realize this is a leap because I don’t know the artists behind most graffiti–someone who’s trying to work their way up to something better. I keep going back to the example of New York in the 1980‘s when city officials saw graffiti as a blight but art collectors and gallery owners saw talented artists who were taking risks because they didn’t have any other outlet. Sometimes when I look at graffiti I read it as a statement by someone who’s got something to complain about.

Missed Connections.

Sometimes I go looking for graffiti, or public art—and the distinction between those two can get pretty fuzzy—and sometimes I just find it. Sometimes I find it because my definition of art is so broad it includes things most people don’t consider art, but if all my years of looking at and reading about art have taught me anything it’s that “art” isn’t easily defined, and I doubt that even if I did become a professional art critic or art historian I’d feel differently. In fact I did once ask an academic what it took to be a professional art historian and he said, “At the very least a Master of Fine Arts degree,” and it was kind of funny to me that anyone ever thought art was something you could master, but that’s another story.

To get back to my original point, and I should because now that I think about it most of the time I don’t find graffiti by looking for it—I just find it, like the example above. I wasn’t looking for graffiti when I found it. I was on my way to a movie and parked in the very lowest level in the far corner of a parking garage even though it meant climbing three flights of stairs, but I was fine with that. I needed the exercise, although I’d really need the exercise even more after a large popcorn. I just like to park a long distance from wherever it is I’m going because I like the exercise and I never know what I’ll see on the way, and it comes in handy during the holiday season when I don’t have much choice.

I was really struck by how someone had not only tagged this storage shed but done so with a lot of flourish, clearly giving it some real thought. They took what was a strictly utilitarian, mass-produced object, something that someone had probably designed without much thought about anything beyond making it as cheap as possible, and they gave it aesthetic appeal.

Something I didn’t even think about until, well, now, is that it might have been in the southeast corner of the parking garage. Maybe there was even another one on the other side that the same person embellished with “North East”. I would know if I’d just bothered to look.

 

Everybody Must Get Stoned.

I was hiking in Radnor Lake and came across this little display that someone, or someones, had put together. A miniature Stonehenge, I thought, although Stonehenge is made up of single giant rocks arranged in a circle and probably built to make astronomical calculations and, by the way, isn’t really a henge according to the completely arbitrary definition of henges, but that’s another story.

It also reminded me of Avebury, which is a henge, and also a stone circle that completely encloses a British village which is cool and depending on your disposition a little unnerving. Or a lot unnerving if, like me, you were one of those kids warped by the British miniseries Children Of The Stones. In Britain it was only shown in 1977 and 1978, but on the States side of the pond then fledgling Nickelodeon picked it up as part of its series The Third Eye and ran at least three times between 1983 and 1984. Much of it was filmed in and around Avebury, and the stone circle—in fact the stones themselves—is so integral to the plot it’s practically a character in itself.

Even as an adult it’s a lot of fun for me to watch the series (it’s available on YouTube and with seven half hour episodes is shorter than the last Avengers movie), but not in a nostalgic hey-there’s-that-thing-from-my-childhood way. For a show mainly aimed at younger viewers Children Of The Stones is surprisingly dark and intelligent, which is why it holds up so well. There’s no sex and only a little very mild violence, and it’s hard to describe the plot without giving too much away. The teenage Matthew Brake comes to the village of Milbury with his father Adam, who’s an astrophysicist studying the stones. Each one has a powerful magnetic field. Together with a small group of locals who are also mostly new arrivals they realize something is going on. People within the stone circle change. They become happy all the time, which seems idyllic, but could just as easily be entrapment.

The series writers adapted it into a novel which I found in my school library at about the same time I was watching the show. The novel sticks to the story, but lacks a lot of what makes the broadcast so powerful: the haunting soundtrack and the excellent acting.

What made it so great is, of course, also why Children Of The Stones is fondly remembered—Stewart Lee talked to some of the producers and actors in a 2012 look back—but fortunately it’s never been remade. And it would be a terrible if it were.

Although it holds up well and even though most of the action was contemporary Children Of The Stones is very much a period piece. The period may be more recent than, say, Downton Abbey, but there’s still something about it that’s removed in time. In the first episode Mr. Hendricks, the local lord of the manner, offers up his “usual toast,” saying, “Old times and new.” Even at the time that sort of very English formality, not to mention lords of manors, was starting to disappear. The world was changing, and the changes were even reaching rural places. Trepidation about the vanishing past was captured in series like Upstairs, Downstairs, and the Kinks album The Village Green Preservation Society.

The mystery of Milbury is, of course, that it’s a place more or less stuck in time. It may not quite be William Blake’s Jerusalem, but clinging to the past in Milbury isn’t entirely futile because it’s caught in an endlessly repeating cosmic cycle.

Stone circles and other ancient monuments, and even modern monuments, served or serve various purposes, but the one purpose they all have in common is that they are reminders. The past may slip away from us but the stones of Stonehenge, or Avebury, or a pile of stones placed on a stump in the woods are all someone’s way of saying, I was here.

There’s Something About Mercury.

Mercury, Venus, and Mars in Virgo. Picture made with the SkyView app.

I’ve only been able to see Mercury, a smudged disk, a few times. There are trees in my neighborhood and it sticks close to the horizon, and close to the sun, so it’s usually only visible at dawn or sunset. And that’s how the innermost planet earned its name. In mythology Mercury stuck close to, and sometimes tormented Apollo, but he was also elusive and a trickster. According to one legend Mercury, or Hermes as he was known to the Greeks, stole Apollo’s cattle and delivered them as a gift to Zeus, saying it was an offering to “the twelve gods of Olympos.”

“By my count there are only eleven gods of Olympos,” replied Zeus. “Who’s the twelfth?”

“At your service,” said Mercury.

You’ve gotta love a guy like that.

He had a dark side too. Hera was jealous of Zeus’s lover Io and turned her into a cow, which I still think is unfair. She was always going after Zeus’s lovers when the problem was, you know, Zeus. And knowing that turning a young girl into a cow would do udderly nothing to stop Zeus Hera also set the thousand-eyed monster Argus to watch over Io, even though it would have made more sense to, you know, set the thousand-eyed monster to watch over Zeus. That still didn’t stop him; he just sent Hermes to take care of the problem, and Hermes gleefully went along because he liked the chaos and disruption . Hermes played his pan pipes for Argus until the monster fell asleep and closed all thousand of his eyes. Here’s a really cool sculpture of Mercury about to slay Argus by Bertel Thorvaldsen.

Source: Thorvaldsen Museum

I love how he’s got his pipes in one hand and is slowly drawing out the sword with the other, careful not to wake the sleeper. Art and death go hand in hand, literally. It’s why I keep an eye out for Mercury.

 

In The Eye.

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about eyes in art and only realized afterward that I’d missed an opportunity to talk about my favorite Edgar Allan Poe story, the one that was my first introduction to Poe: The Tell-Tale Heart. My first encounter with it was the animated film narrated by James Mason, which I saw on TV, and it terrified me. I also loved it and went to the library and checked out a book of Poe’s stories the next day, so don’t let anyone tell you TV is a bad influence, kids, especially if they’re the sort of people who think you shouldn’t be reading stories about death and murder and drug use and incest—which is exactly what you’ll find in Poe’s works.

The title of The Tell-Tale Heart is, of course, misleading. Only the nameless narrator hears the heart so it doesn’t really give anything away, but I’m getting ahead of the story. One of Poe’s main sources for The Tell-Tale Heart was Daniel Webster’s prosecution of John Francis Knapp, who was one of the killers of a wealthy man. In a courtroom speech Webster dramatically described the murder:

The face of the innocent sleeper was turned from the murderer, and the beams of the moon, resting on the gray locks of his aged temple, showed him where to strike. The fatal blow is given, and the victim passes, without a struggle or a motion, from the repose of sleep to the repose of death!

Webster then goes on at length about how a guilty conscience can’t stay quiet, inspiring Poe’s denouement, although Knapp was driven by greed while Poe’s narrator is driven by something else. He displaces his own internal torment onto an old man whom he lives with, and, in spite of the story’s emphasis on sound, what first sets off the narrator is what he sees:

I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire. I think it was his eye! yes, it was this! He had the eye of a vulture –a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees –very gradually –I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever.

And he looks in on the old man sleeping night after night, but each time the eye is closed. It’s only on the eighth night that the old man wakes up and sits up in bed, “listening; –just as I have done, night after night, hearkening to the death watches in the wall.” This is incredibly creepy. Deathwatch beetles, which chew through wood and can damage houses, communicate with a distinct six to eight clicks, and in folklore they’re harbingers of death. Some scholars think what the narrator may be hearing is actually a booklouse which keeps up a longer, steadier beat, but then we’re also talking about a guy who, right from the beginning, tells us, “I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell.” Just before the murder he hears the old man’s heart beating, “a low, dull, quick sound, such as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton,” which suggests maybe the old man was more hard-hearted than the narrator’s willing to let on, and he hears the beating get steadily louder. I think Poe makes it pretty clear that the only thing we can be sure of is that we can’t be sure of anything the narrator says. I’m not sure I even trust his confession.

It’s a fun story that starts quietly and builds to a devastatingly loud end, which is why it’s even better read out loud. Once on a Boy Scout camping trip I read it to my fellow Scouts around the campfire, but don’t let anyone tell you I’m a bad influence. Everyone really enjoyed it, even Blake who got so scared he shit himself, and people came over from other campsites to see what all the screaming was about. I really put my heart into it.

A Werewolf Problem In Central Park.

Source: Untapped Cities

While reintroducing wolves in many areas has been controversial the introduction of wolves into New York City wasn’t controversial at all, since it took care of a much more serious problem. The Mayor Ed Koch Wolf Foundation, which has a new monument to the decision to release wolves in New York City parks, explains the history:

In the late 1970s, New York Mayor Edward I. Koch launched an unprecedented campaign against subway graffiti. The city employed new guardians to patrol its vast train yards—wolves. Captured from upstate New York and set loose in various borough depots, the wolves successfully kept taggers at bay until anti-graffiti technology eliminated the need for the animals.

It goes on to explain that the wolves then migrated underground and survive in tunnels, although I think this had absolutely nothing to do with graffiti, which the wolves did nothing to prevent, and it was really an excuse to distract people from the problem of alligators in the sewers.

Why wolves? For that matter, where wolves? “There! There wolf! There castle!” as Marty Feldman said, but that’s another story.

Lycanthropy has long been a subject of fascination. There’s also ursanthropy–transformation into a bear–which isn’t as well known, although the term “berserk” can trace its etymology back to an Icelandic term for warriors who wore bearskins in the belief they would impart the bear’s power. And that’s really useful if you want to go into battle and eat a ton of salmon and blueberries. Maybe that’s why werewolves are more famous: bears hibernate through the winter, but wolves are on the prowl all year long, and lycanthropes can be out even when there’s not a full moon.

Now I’m not saying there are werewolves among New York City’s wolves. I’m also not not saying there are werewolves among New York City’s wolves. New York City is a big place that’s seen a lot of history, and if you can’t find werewolves there you can’t find ’em anywhere. And if wolves, or werewolves, can make it in New York City they can make it anywhere.

Honestly I’m surprised New York’s werewolf population, or just its wolf population, hasn’t become a bigger tourist attraction. As the monument reminds us tourists have a real way of attracting wolves.

Anyway there’s something to look out for if you’re ever in New York. Just don’t go looking after dark.

 

 

Someone Just Walked Over My Grave.

Hands vermillion, start of five

Bright cotillion, raven’s dive,

Nightshades promise, spirit’s strive,

To the living let now the dead…

come alive.

Otho, Bettlejuice

 

Monsters are real, and ghosts are real too. They live inside us, and sometimes, they win.

― Stephen King

 

I guess he’s going to Queens – he’s going to be the third scariest thing on that train.

-Patty Tolan, Ghostbusters

 

You said I killed you–haunt me then. The murdered do haunt their murderers. I believe–I know that ghosts have wandered the earth. Be with me always–take any form–drive me mad. Only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you!

–Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights

 

People populate the darkness; with ghosts, with gods, with electrons, with tales. People imagine, and people believe; and it is that rock solid belief, that makes things happen.

― Neil Gaiman, American Gods

 

Sir, what you had there was what we referred to as a focused, non-terminal repeating phantasm, or a Class-5 full-roaming vapor. Real nasty one, too.

-Ray Stantz, Ghostbusters

 

Source: qwantz.com

On Pembroke Road look out for my ghost,

Dishevelled with shoes untied,

Playing through the railings with little children

Whose children have long since died.

-Patrick Kavanaugh, If Ever You Go To Dublin Town

 

Finally, in answer to the question, “Who are you and what do you want?” the reply came, “I am a spirit; I was once very happy but have been disturbed.”

Authenticated History Of The Bell Witch And Other Stories Of The World’s Greatest Unexplained Phenomenon by M.V. Ingram

If, after I depart this vale, you ever remember me and have thought to please my ghost, forgive some sinner and wink your eye at some homely girl.

― H. L. Mencken

 

Too often, people make the mistake of trying to use their art to capture a ghost, but only end up spreading their haunting to countless other people.

― Caitlín R. Kiernan, The Drowning Girl

 

Damned spirits all

That in crossways and floods have burial,

Already to their wormy beds are gone.

For fear lest day should look their shames upon,

They willfully themselves exile from light,

And must for aye consort with black-browed night.

–Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 3, Scene 2

 

In The Amityville Horror the ghost told them to get out of the house. White people stayed in there. Now that’s a hint and a half for your ass. A ghost say get the fuck out, I would just tip the fuck out the door! Lou Walker looked in the toilet bowl, there was blood in the toilet. And said, “That’s peculiar.” I would’ve been in the house saying: “Oh baby, this is beautiful. We got a chandelier hanging up here, kids outside playing. It’s a beautiful neighborhood. We ain’t got nuttin’ to worry about, I really love it, this is really nice.”

[loud whisper]  “GET OUT”

“Too bad we can’t stay, baby!”

Eddie Murphy

The Eyes Have It.

There is so much that could be said about the use of eyes in art that I don’t know where to begin. In fact I’ve put off writing some pictures I’ve taken of graffiti with eyes because I don’t know where to begin, because there is so much that can be said about eyes in art going back at least as far as ancient Egypt and the Eye of Horus, which was used a ts a protective symbol, both worn and placed on the bow of ships to serve as a lookout. There’s the fact that in most sculptures of people or animals the eyes are left blank, although there are exceptions. The most famous one might be the Colossus of Constantine which has carved out irises and pupils. Constantine is probably meant to be looking heavenward but to me he looks more like he’s rolling his eyes, which might be why his head goes flying around during the opening credits of Monty Python’s Life Of Brian, but that’s another story.

In painting there’s the Mona Lisa, and in several of Monet’s paintings people look directly out at the viewer, which was considered controversial at the time. And I can see why. There’s something a little unnerving about a painting, even one that’s not necessarily trompe l’oeil, staring back at you because you know it will never blink. If it does, though, well, that could mean trouble. Or it could mean you’re in a Scooby Doo cartoon and there’s someone behind the painting watching you through the eye holes. And that reminds me that in many cultures there’s the “evil eye”, with various charms against it. If you’ve read Carlos Collodi’s Pinocchio, and not just watched the Disney cartoon version, you know that when Gepetto starts carving Pinocchio the puppet’s eyes immediately glare at him. I’m not sure why he doesn’t stop carving right then and throw the wood in the fire–although it would have made the story a lot shorter.

Anyway most of us take in art by looking at it. Not all art is visual, and even though touching most paintings is verboten—unless you’re looking for an excuse to get thrown out of a museum—I wish we could. A lot of paintings have thick layers of paint and being able to touch those would add a whole new level of understanding. That’s even more true of sculpture. The artist Sylvia Hyman made ceramic works that look so much like paper people are surprised when they touch them, which usually isn’t allowed because they’re so fragile.

I’m getting off the subject of eyes, maybe because there’s so much to say about it, or maybe because it unnerves me. When we look into a painted eye the painted eye looks back into us.

Art Therapy.

It’s fun for me to take some graffiti and relate it to some aspect of art history even if, and sometimes especially if, any connection between the two is a real stretch or simply nonexistent since most, or even all, art comes from a mental leap. This time, though, I want to get more personal. I’m still contemplating my five-year cancerversary—and I know that’s a word I just made up, and I know that since “annus” is the Latin for “year” and “versus” is the Latin for “turn” and that therefore “anniversary” means “turning of the year” and cogito ergo something or other the word should be “annicancer” but that doesn’t roll off the tongue like “cancerversary” and this entire paragraph has gotten away from me and I should start over.

Back in June 2014 when I got the cancer diagnosis I spent two nights in the hospital. The second night I was taken up to a private room, and while the window basically looked out at a brick wall because it was in a wing that was a fairly recent addition I could walk down the hall to a window that looked down at a stretch of 21st Avenue I knew well. I sat at that window for a long time wondering what was ahead of me, looking down at places that held so many happy memories for me, and wished I could be down there. Really I wished I could be anywhere other than a hospital room, but there was something especially frustrating about being so close to places I’d not only much rather be but that I could imagine so clearly.

One of those places was the Sportsman’s Grille where I’d had a few beers. Really I’d had more than a few beers there–in college I did this Dylan Thomas impersonation. I’d imitate his voice and recite “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” and guzzle an entire pitcher of Gerst beer in between lines and sometimes, in another imitation of Dylan Thomas, do that three or four times in one night, which would amuse my English major friends and horrify my pre-med friends, but that’s another story.

The Sportsman’s Grille also had an upstairs pool room and it was the only place I knew–and still know–in Nashville that had a snooker table, which is larger than the standard table used for 8 and 9-ball. And I love snooker. It’s so unbelievably complicated it’s best played sober, although I think the reason it’s unbelievably complicated is because whoever wrote the rules had to be drunk at the time.

Anyway the Sportsman’s Grille was brightly lit that night and as I sat at the window, almost certain I could hear the click of billiard balls and maybe even a voice slurring, “Though wise men at their end know dark is right…”

The Sportsman’s Grille in that location is closed now, and the building is currently empty. There’s a billboard over it and someone, or, from the look of it, a couple of someones, added their own tags to the back of the billboard. They’re stark and simple although really well done, and I can’t explain why but it makes me happy to see them up there. I’m sure there’s a reason but I can’t quite make the leap.

 

Play On, MacDuff.

So I happened to be passing by and noticed that someone had stuck a bunch of mostly red plastic cups in a fence, and of course I had to stop and take pictures of it because I’m weird, although probably not as weird as someone who’d stick a bunch of mostly red plastic cups in a fence and not even try to put them in some kind of order or pattern. Or maybe the original person did make some kind of pattern, reminiscent of the Lite Brite toy many of us had as kids, and then someone else came along and rearranged the cups so it was just random and looked stupid, also reminiscent of the Lite Brite toy many of us had as a kid, and it would be even more reminiscent of the Lite Brite I had as a kid if one of my friends had come by and rearranged it to say DICKS.

Some might think it’s a stretch to call this art—and some might think this is a terrible waste of red plastic cups which are more often a common symbol for “YES I AM DRINKING CHEAP ALCOHOL”, but that’s another story. Consider, though, that toys have an aesthetic design which isn’t usually thought of as art for the same reason that most other mass-produced objects aren’t thought of as art.

Speaking of toys and art consider this:

Source: MOMA.orgThat’s The Palace At 4 AM, a 1932 sculpture by Alberto Giacometti. It looks like a pared-down dollhouse, doesn’t it? It also kind of reminds me of the Scottish play, specifically Act V, scene 1, but that may be getting too high-falutin’ for, um, play. Giacometti even made some other sculptures that were meant to be played with as toys, but because they were made out of plaster and fairly fragile and because Giacometti went on to become a famous sculptor whose works are now worth millions those “toys” can’t be touched anymore, which ruins the purpose.

Also consider that all art—and all science, too, since science also requires creativity—begins with play. Art and science begin with us learning to play with the world around us, because play is a way of shaping the world and understanding its rules and limits. And that’s why I’ll leave you with this final thought from none other than Captain James T. Kirk:

“The more complex the mind, the greater the need for the simplicity of play.”

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