American Graffiti.

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

Go Big.

Is it possible to convey just how big a really large work of art is or do you have to stand in front of it to really understand its size? One example that comes to my mind is Gericault’s Raft Of The Medusa, a painting I’d seen reproduced dozens of times, always on a small scale. I knew from what I’d read that it was a massive painting, but somehow I couldn’t wrap my head around just how big sixteen feet by twenty-three and a half feet really is until I was standing in front of it, and had to walk back and forth and crane my head way back just to take it all in. It’s not surprising that it took Gericault nine months to paint it–from November 1818 to July 1819. In fact it’s surprising he did it that quickly even though he didn’t leave his studio or work on anything else that entire time.

The only way I can think of to explain the difference between seeing a reproduction and seeing the real thing is with another completely different comparison. My whole life I’ve heard “It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity” and when people told me about going from Tennessee to a more arid climate they’d always say, “It’s true! The humidity really does make a difference!” And I believed them. I just couldn’t understand how much of a difference it made until I went to Palm Springs, California, in June, where the temperature went up to about 105 degrees Fahrenheit–that’s 40 degrees Celsius but with zero humidity it felt like 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Or at least it didn’t feel that hot. Here in Nashville when it gets that warm going outside is like swimming. Even if you don’t do the breaststroke down the sidewalk you’re still gonna get soaked. In Palm Springs it felt pleasant, even cool, until you dropped from dehydration.

What I’m getting at is that I don’t know if I can convey just how big this graffiti is, and its size is even more impressive considering that most graffiti by its very nature has to be done in a hurry. Maybe this will give a better idea of the scale.

I didn’t plan to wear a shirt that matched the paint. That was just a lucky coincidence.

Granted I’m not that tall–I stand just 5’6″, or about 1.68 meters if you want to get metric about it. I’m short enough that I look up to most people, but still that should give you some idea of how big this work is even if you’re not the one standing in front of it.


Believe In Art.

So the Pope looks up and says, “Uh, Michelangelo, when I asked you to paint the ceiling I meant beige.”

Religion and art have been so deeply entwined throughout history that it’s hard to separate the two. Even religious traditions with a strict prohibition against the worship of idols have incorporated works of art into regular practice–the use of icons in Christian Orthodoxy, for instance.

I’m not a particularly religious person myself but there is a lot of great art inspired by and celebrating religion. And for some the two may not be so separate; there are plenty of artists for whom art is their religion, and arguably all art expresses a belief in something, even if that belief is just that they can make a quick buck off of it. The confluence of art and religion, needless to say, is a really big subject, one that can fill several books, and in fact has. And I just realized while writing this that the proliferation of -isms in early 20th century art was comparable to a set of religious schisms even though Cubists and Orphists didn’t go out and kill each other, but that’s another story.

I also think of being an artist as a calling–not that different from preaching a particular faith. The artist and the priest may have different ways of getting their message out but they both have a message. At its best religious art celebrates whatever belief gets the artist out of bed in the morning and can inspire even those of us who don’t share the artist’s faith. You don’t need religion to be a good person, and, as recent revelations about the Catholic Church remind us, religious people aren’t necessarily good, although I do believe that all well-done art–religious or secular–makes us better people. As Joseph Brodsky said in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, “On the whole, every new aesthetic reality makes man’s ethical reality more precise. For aesthetics is the mother of ethics.”

Now if you’re wondering why I’m talking about religious art it’s because I assume the graffiti above is religious in nature, representing Buddhism’s red lotus of love and compassion. According to legend wherever the Buddha stepped a lotus blossomed. And there’s something very powerful about an artist who’s trespassing and making their art illicitly asking for love and compassion.

At least that’s what I believe. Maybe there isn’t any religious intent here, but consider the work in context.


Building Up.

When I saw this graffiti decorating the wall along a stairwell I thought, wow, sometimes art and architecture really go hand-in-hand. And then I thought that was a pretty stupid thought because architecture is an art form–even the dullest, plainest building is thoughtfully designed. Any aesthetic enhancement is just icing on the cake. And what is cake without icing? Well, it’s still cake, but really wouldn’t you rather have cake with icing? Or you can have icing without cake, if that’s your thing, although I find that eating just icing gets old really fast. And don’t get me started on the question of whether it’s icing or frosting and what the difference is between the two. Whatever you put on your cake it’s usually served at room temperature so associating it with either ice or frost is kind of ridiculous, but that’s another story.

Anyway considering the confluence of art and architecture reminded me of the saying, “Writing about painting is like dancing about architecture.” There are a lot of variations on that saying which can be traced back at least as far as 1918, although more recently Elvis Costello said, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture—it’s a really stupid thing to want to do.” With all due respect to Mr. Costello I’d really like to see some dancing about architecture.

Sometimes, though, I think it’s best to just step back and let a work of art speak for itself. A picture may be worth a thousand words but a thousand words don’t necessarily add up to a picture. That’s frustrating to me as a critic, even an amateur one, but sometimes all I can really do is just say, hey, that’s pretty amazing, ain’t it?

Risky Business.

Several years ago my wife and I went to see Penn & Teller. At one point in the show Penn came out juggling flaming batons and everyone cheered. Then he put on safety glasses, made a wisecrack about OSHA regulations, cracked the bottoms off a couple of glass bottles, and started juggling those. I think a few people applauded politely and Penn explained that we should all be a lot more impressed. The batons, he explained, were made to be juggled–they were balanced–and if he grabbed the wrong end by mistake he could drop it quickly enough to only get a slight burn. Glass bottles, on the other hand, were never made to be thrown around and if he grabbed the wrong end, well, the first three rows would probably be sprayed with blood.

In short for those who didn’t know the physics of juggling the flaming batons really looked more impressive than they were and the broken bottles were more impressive than they looked. It’s something that can be true in other art forms too: knowledge of technique can make something that appears impressive seem a lot less so, and something that at first glance doesn’t seem all that great can actually demonstrate a surprising amount of skill. So should artists always take risks? All I can say is we all would have been really impressed if he’d come out juggling flaming broken bottles.

After the show both Penn and Teller came out to the lobby and stood around talking to people and signing autographs. I joined the big crowd around Penn and looked over and noticed there were only a couple of people around Teller. I wanted to go over to him but at the same time I didn’t. I think Teller’s a fascinating character–they both are, but I’m especially intrigued by Teller, especially after hearing him talk about how he developed a floating ball routine on an episode of This American Life–the podcast, so I was really just hearing a voice. He talks about how a trick has to be perfect, that any flaw is a risk no magician can take:

 I mean, magic is a fantastically meticulous form. You forgive other forms. A musician misses a note, moves on, fine. He’ll come to the conclusion of the piece. Magic is an on/off switch. Either it looks like a miracle or it’s stupid.

That night that we saw Penn & Teller perform I worried that speaking to him would have spoiled part of his illusion, but I wish I’d been willing to take that risk.

No Regrets.

Several years ago on a water tower that stands over downtown Nashville someone spray painted the words “DEFY MEDEOCRITY”. It wasn’t the most impressive graffiti I’ve ever seen. It was large and obviously someone had put a lot of work into it, but the letters were made with simple white lines so aesthetically it wasn’t that impressive. And then there was the obvious misspelling. And it always bothers me that some word processing programs insist that misspelling is spelled with one ‘s’, although the Oxford English Dictionary insists that it’s spelled with two and I’ll take that as the authoritative source even I refuse to accept the editors of the OED getting rid of the Oxford comma, but that’s another story.

I always wondered if the person who spray-painted that message realized they’d made a mistake and regretted it. Or maybe it was intentional. Maybe their way of defying mediocrity was challenging the arbitrary standards of spelling.

Anyway I look at the graffiti above and wonder the same thing. It’s in a cramped stairwell so it’s really hard to get a good picture, but here’s the door where the ‘T’ would have gone:

Clearly there was a lot of work and thought put into this—it really is some seriously impressive graffiti—so I wonder, was this intentional? Maybe the artist purposely left this unfinished to make a statement of really being unrepentant about making something great.

Don’t Believe Everything You Ink.

An interesting thing about a word used as visual art is how it can prompt new ideas about that word. Even changing the font or highlighting a word on a page or a computer screen in some way can emphasize or even change what it means.

And then there’s China Mieville’s novel Kraken about London’s supernatural criminal underworld, populated with a whole array of weird characters, including an animated talking tattoo, and a plot that revolves around a giant squid. Except it isn’t the squid itself that’s as important as what it contains. Whoever controls the ink controls the world—the ink can rewrite the world.

This isn’t a new idea. The notion that words have power is older than abracadabra, and that the way a word is written can make it even more powerful dates from the Kabbalah, if not earlier. It’s an interesting thing to consider that sometimes the medium is the message.


There’s a Plaza Art Store in downtown Nashville, near Third Man Records. I like to browse there and look at all the unusual art supplies and think about what I might create if I had any talent. They have spray paint in a dizzying array of colors and used to have a sign up that said they’d need the ID of anyone who bought spray paint and would keep the information on file. It’s gone now—I guess they don’t need to anymore, but I wonder why it was ever a policy. Yes, I know, spray paint is the tagger’s medium of choice, but would the store really be liable? I get that vandalism is a crime but no one ever died from graffiti, and really the original Vandals weren’t all that bad, but that’s another story.

That sign also made me think about the legendary explosion of graffiti in New York in the ’80’s and how many of the artists, including Lee Quiñones and Keith Haring, earned respect and became well-known and collected artists, something that might not have happened if they hadn’t risked being arrested for graffiti.

The graffiti above is near that art store in Nashville and I like it because it’s really well done and also because the way its colors and lines overlap makes me think about how, in my own head, questions about the value of graffiti and public versus private space and the impulse to create art overlap and change.

It’s No Accident.

There’s a funny story about Jackson Pollock and a critic who called his paintings “accidental”. Pollock picked up a paintbrush, flicked a blob of paint across the room where it hit the doorknob, and said, “There’s the door. Don’t let it accidentally hit you in the ass on your way out.”

It’s probably not true, or at least embellished, but I like it because it speaks to how Pollock’s paintings really aren’t as accidental as they seem. For the 2000 film Pollock starring Ed Harris art students were able to faithfully recreate several of Pollock’s paintings, and Pollock himself was very careful about detail. He didn’t just throw paint at a canvas. Well, he did, but with a pretty good idea of where it would land. There’s also a funny line from an episode of Frasier where Niles explains that he was at an art opening and accidentally flicked a canape onto a painting and now has to pay to have it restored, adding, “How he could notice a fleck of foie gras on a Jackson Pollock is beyond me,” but that’s another story.

One of the things that fascinates me about what look like scribbled tags, stuff that somebody just dashed off without any thought, is how, when I look closely, I see a lot of detail that appears to be anything but accidental, and when I see the same tag multiple times–usually in different places–I’m sometimes surprised by how a seemingly random scribble can be repeated.

There are a few subtle differences but it’s pretty cool how similar these two are.

It Comes And Goes.

Source: Google Maps

If you were traveling west along I-440 through Nashville, approaching the West End exit, you might notice this colorful mural on the side of a gas station and mini-mart. In fact the exit ramp that will take you east on West End runs right by it. It’s difficult to get a picture from a moving car, which is why I turned to Google for this particular view. You might stop here if you were on your way to the Parthenon, or anywhere in the midtown area, although you wouldn’t see the mural from the front of the building.

And now it’s difficult to see anyway. The gas station has closed, after competing for years with another one on the same block, that’s a little farther down and not quite as colorful. Large honeysuckle bushes have grown up in front of it, obscuring the view from the road.

The plans for the spot are immaterial. What matters is it’s a piece of public art that, for a few years, tried to attract customers and provided a bright spot for people just passing by. Places like this will appear, be noticed, and then be forgotten once they’re gone, like the travelers who pass by.




In Depth.

Illuminated manuscripts, especially Medieval works that were written by hand, are always noted for their illustrations and especially the marginalia, those little pictures and abstract designs that form a border around the main text. In a class on medieval literature one of my professors pointed out that the marginalia often illustrate or even supplement the writing, even when the pictures are completely abstract, like the interwoven Celtic designs that appear in some texts. A line that disappears behind a line of a different color, for instance, suggests the movement of the story as well as a transition: just because one line disappears out of sight doesn’t mean it’s out of mind. Parallel or interwoven lines, on the other hand, may suggest similar stories, such as that of Tristan and Isolde which mirrors and foreshadows the tragedy of Launcelot, Guinevere, and King Arthur in Mallory’s Morte D’Arthur.
Or at least that’s what a lot of modern scholars believe. Since the original illustrators of works like Mallory’s or the Book Of Kells are long gone–or if they’re still around they’re really, really, really old–no one’s able to ask them, and most of the artists who did the work of copying and illuminating manuscripts are anonymous. In the case of works like Beowulf or Sir Gawain & The Green Knight, for that matter, even the authors are anonymous. But there are cases where the correlation between the border designs and the stories seems pretty closely tied.
Anyway I thought about all that when I found this particular work which is really interesting because of its contrast between abstraction and depth, placing different parts in front of each other, and those striking red triangles at either end suggest looking to both the past and future. It doesn’t represent anything recognizable and yet still seems to tell a story–at least that’s what I believe. I assume and hope the artist is still around–this is a pretty recent work, but I have no idea who the artist is or anything about them–whether they’re young or really, really, really old.

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