American Graffiti.

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

All You Need To Know.

Sometimes people say to me, “I like art but I don’t understand it.” I understand what they mean. I also don’t understand what they mean.

Art criticism isn’t as hard as a lot of art critics seem to want to make it out to be. The only thing anyone really has to ask themselves when considering a work of art is, Do I like it? And if you can give a lengthy, detailed answer explaining why then congratulations—you’ve got all it takes to be an art critic, because a critic is just somebody whose opinion is longer than anybody else’s.

I think I first realized this many years ago in college when a famous and highly respected art critic came to judge student works. He was so famous I can’t remember his name now, but it doesn’t matter because you probably wouldn’t recognize it anyway. How many art critics can you name? I read a lot of art criticism and history and I can only name about half a dozen and at least two of those are dead but that’s another story.

When the famous and highly respected art critic came to judge the students’ works he explained his method for deciding what was good and what wasn’t.

“Some mornings I want orange juice and some mornings I want tomato juice,” he said. “If I feel like orange juice and you give me tomato juice, even if it’s the world’s best tomato juice, I’m not going to like it.” This was a pretty brave admission from a critic, and probably more than he meant to say—that his judgments were subjective and fallible and likely to change, even from one day to the next. And he’d probably not be too pleased with me interpreting his words that way but, hey, he’s the one who said it. And I don’t feel bad about interpreting him that way because he looked at my friend’s painting and said, “This is pineapple juice. I hate pineapple juice.”

And then he moved on without saying anything else, which I think was unfair of him. He could have offered more and I’d even say that as a critic he should have offered more. The only critic who should be allowed such a terse opinion would be a dead critic and maybe not even then.

There’s a needle somewhere in this verbal haystack and it’s that I like the above picture but I don’t know what to say about it except that to me it’s pineapple juice and I always like pineapple juice.

See The Elephant.

The Curious Nashville podcast probes local history and answers peoples’ questions about various oddities around the history, and in December they did an episode that, among other things, answered the question of why there’s a giant pink elephant in a parking lot on Charlotte Avenue. And, as you can probably guess, I was annoyed. I’ve seen the giant pink elephant for years. I pass by it on a regular basis. Normally it wears a giant pair of glasses. Right now it has no glasses and has a giant marquee on its side. A couple of years ago they took off the glasses to repaint the elephant and it was not only an even more vivid shade of pink—leaning more towards magenta than salmon—but it looked creepy because they painted the eyes the same color. Around Valentine’s Day they put big hearts on the “lenses” of the glasses, and, as you can probably guess, I’m annoyed that I didn’t get a picture of that. I’m annoyed that having thought to myself hundreds, possibly even thousands of times, that I should stop and take a picture of the giant pink elephant while it was sunny, bright, and warm, I’ve put it off and had to take the picture above in the rain.
What really annoys me, though, is the reason I kept putting off taking a picture of the giant elephant. I was waiting for my blogging career to take off. I was waiting to become so successful and well known I could call up the car dealer that has the pink elephant in their parking lot and I could say, “Hi, I’m Christopher Waldrop, no doubt you’ve heard of me,” and even if they hadn’t I could say, “Well, I’ve got a fantastically successful blog and I’d like to write something about your giant pink elephant that could reach hundreds, possibly even thousands, of readers.” And I’d even suggest perhaps a small fee, and when we agreed on a price I could ask, “So can I give you that in cash?” but that’s another story.
The Curious Nashville podcast, however, beat me to the punch, got the scoop, fished the pond, threw in the towel, jumped the gun, cut me off at the pass, and also did a story about the big pink elephant. It reminded me that during the California gold rush of the mid-19th century the phrase “seeing the elephant”, to mean having extraordinary experiences but at extraordinary cost, came into currency as prospectors, settlers, and others who headed west to build new lives sometimes gave up everything they’d built to go see traveling exhibits that included elephants. The phrase “seeing the elephant” came to have a strangely positive connotation as many people who saw the elephant said the losses were worth it.
Anyway none of this would stop me from doing my own story, but it did make me think, what am I waiting for? What’s stopping me? Nothing, really, except my own hesitancy, so maybe I should go ahead and write something about it. And maybe I will. After all I saw the elephant.


Drawing A Line.

Sometimes the simplest art can have the most profound implications. Take this graffiti, for instance. Or leave it.

Either way it’s still just simple lines that could represent almost anything: a horizon, the stock market, a cardiogram on the fritz, a nervous rainbow, a shoreline, a trail, wrinkles, a wrinkle in time, the threads of time, the unraveling of an idea, or the raveling of one. I often hear about things unraveling but I’d rather do some raveling. That’s just the way I am—I’ve always been a ravel rouser, but that’s another story. The lines could be borders or boundaries which are, after all, just lines on a map. Consider this amazing map of Australia’s railroads:

Source: tywkiwdbi

It’s amazing to me there’s a railroad to Tasmania since Tasmania is an island. I assume it’s reached by a viaduct, but viaduct? Why not a goose? That’s a question I’ll leave to someone else.

Australia’s rail lines really aren’t that straight even though geometry tells us the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, and yet space is curved, which means if you set out from any point and travel long enough you’ll eventually come back to where you started. I’m sure I’m circling a point right now but since I didn’t start from one it doesn’t look like I’m going anywhere.


Love Bug.

The El Paso Zoo has come up with a novel way to celebrate Valentine’s Day: they’ll name a cockroach after your ex and then feed it to a meerkat on February 14th. I don’t have any exes, not even in Texas, I’d like to dememorialize in such a special way, but I’m tempted to do it just to feed a meerkat. Or maybe I’ll send in my own name, as a way of apologizing to a coworker. Several years ago I put a rubber cockroach in her jar of paper clips. About an hour later the entire office heard, “OH SHIT!” followed by “CHRIS!!!”

Sometimes my reputation precedes me and sometimes it skitters along behind me, and that’s not a bug—it’s a feature!

Failure To Launch.

Source: Nevada Museum Of Art

One night in mid-April 1981 I was out in my backyard and looked up and could see a small bright dot moving across the sky just overhead. It was the Space Shuttle Columbia on its first flight. It was staggering to think that it was in orbit, a tiny object above the atmosphere, but it could still be seen. It made all of space seem within reach.
I was reminded of that when I heard that the artist Trevor Paglan designed a completely nonfunctional satellite called “Orbital Reflector” that was then launched into orbit by Space X on December 3rd, 2018. Its long mylar blade was supposed to be inflated so it would reflect sunlight, making it visible from Earth, but that part of the project was put on hold by the U.S. government shutdown. Without government approval the reflector part still remains on hold. It’s not what the artist intended but it’s a fitting metaphor for the aspirations and failures of humanity. Also sometime in March it will fall back to Earth and burn up in the atmosphere, whether its reflector is deployed or not, and that’s a fitting metaphor too. All of human history, and prehistory, wouldn’t add up to a single tick of the cosmic clock. Paglan’s work is also intended to challenge ideas of who owns space, and what it’s meant to be used for–or not used for, since his satellite is purely aesthetic.
And I can think of a lot of reasons why this is a really intriguing work of art, an interesting and challenging idea, but I can think of more reasons why it’s a really bad idea. Even within its short lifespan it’s junking up space around the Earth. The reason its final deployment was delayed by the shutdown, the reason the position of any satellite has to be carefully planned, is there’s a lot of stuff floating around the Earth, and that stuff is moving at really high speeds. It turns out nature doesn’t abhor a vacuum–only dogs don’t want the carpet cleaned, but that’s another story–and objects in orbit aren’t subject to terrestrial inertia. At those speeds collisions can be spectacular.
Even with its blade unfurled the Orbital Reflector would hardly be the only artificial object visible from the ground. Stand in the right place at the right time, and in an area away from enough light pollution, and you can see the International Space Station and other satellites–in particular the sixty-six Iridium satellites that are known to flare and disappear in a few seconds. They’re commercial satellites, providing communication services, which, if you see space as something that connects us all–we all look up at the same stars, watch the same Sun, Moon, and planets move through the sky and the exploration of space is a collective project–seems like a more fitting, and functional, metaphor.



He Kicked The Bucket.

Source: IMDB

Walter, you are just an echo of a world I knew so long ago.
-The Kinks, Do You Remember Walter?

My parents were telling me about an art exhibit of life size sculptures they’d been to.

“It reminded me of Bucket Of Blood,” said my mother.

My father explained that A Bucket Of Blood was a movie they’d been to see when they were still dating, then he asked me if I’d seen it.

“Seen it?” I almost shouted. “I’ve got it on DVD!”

My father rolled his eyes and said, “I should have known.” I’m still not sure why he was surprised. The fact that my parents were going to Roger Corman movies long before I was born explains a lot about who I am. Maybe it even explains why, long before I first saw it, I was strangely drawn to its star, Dick Miller. Maybe it’s why there was always something familiar about him. When I saw him as Murray Futterman in Gremlins or a gun shop owner in The Terminator or proprietor of a roadside restaurant in The Twilight Zone: The Movie, or a guy who eats flowers in the original Little Shop Of Horrors—I honestly can’t say which of those I saw first, and when he popped up in an early episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation—my reaction was always, hey, it’s…that guy! From…that thing! And I’m not the only one. A 2014 documentary about Miller’s life and career is called, fittingly enough, That Guy Dick Miller.
Maybe I recognized him because I’d seen him in something else. He built a career on cameos. After serving in the Navy in World War II he earned a Ph.D. in psychology—making him Doctor Dick Miller—then moved from New York to California to write screenplays. He went straight to Roger Corman who said he had plenty of screenplays but needed actors, so Dick Miller became an actor, appearing in several Corman films. One of his most memorable roles is as a vacuum cleaner salesman in 1957’s Not Of This Earth. Corman wanted the salesman to wear a suit and bow tie, but Miller came to the set in a black cashmere jacket and a black shirt, saying, “this is the way I dressed when I sold pots and pans in the Bronx…You think a guy goes to college to sell vacuums?” He played the role as a fast-talking hipster who says, “Crazy, man” when invited in, providing the film some much needed comedy.
Then he got a large, although not quite leading, role in the 1958 film War Of The Satellites, and would get his most memorable role in A Bucket Of Blood. Miller played Walter Paisley, a busboy in a coffee shop who longs to be like the poets and artists who hang out there. Mentally challenged and lacking any real talent Walter has an inspiration when he accidentally kills his landlady’s cat and molds clay around the body. He quickly moves on to people, turning corpses into sculptures that the critics love—until they find out what’s underneath. It sounds grim, and it is, although the story rocks along at a speedy pace and the total runtime is just a little over an hour, and even finds time for a subplot about heroin dealing that helps provide Paisley with a couple of models. Yet Miller made Walter Paisley a sympathetic character, playing him with a wide-eyed innocence reminiscent of Lenny in Of Mice And Men, and, like Lenny, he doesn’t fully understand the implications of his actions, which heightens the tragedy. The film was shot in five days on a very low budget, and critics noticed, but they were positive toward Miller. A review in Variety said “his ability to sustain a sense of poignancy…is responsible in large part for the film’s appeal,” and the CEA Film Report called the part of Walter Paisley “cleverly played”.
Miller stuck around for a small part in Corman’s record setting Little Shop Of Horrors, shot on the same sets and using most of the same cast, in just two days, but his career had peaked. He’d accumulate over a hundred screen credits in his career but until That Guy Dick Miller he’d never land another leading role. Instead he took small parts, and, in a kind of inside joke, played several characters named Walter Paisley. A Bucket Of Blood would go on to be remade as a made-for-TV movie on Showtime in 1995, and as a stage musical. Dick Miller, like some critics, regretted that Corman had been too focused on time and budget to make a better film, but remained proud of it, saying in 1998, “I believe A Bucket Of Blood is truly the cult film of all cult films…Very, very few films are in every film museum in the world. A Bucket Of Blood is.” That’s likely because the copyright lapsed and the film is now essentially in the public domain, but I think critics and scholars recognize that, like Walter Paisley’s sculptures, there’s something substantial under the film’s outer shell.
If you’ve never heard of Dick Miller, if you see a picture of him and, like me say, “Hey, it’s…that guy,” or if you don’t recognize him at all that’s sad, but it’s also at least partly his own fault. He was well liked and respected by directors and other actors. Some actors, on their days off, would come to the set just to watch him work. And yet he never pursued bigger roles. He took the saying that there are no small parts too much to heart. The film industry is full of actors with ambition but no talent. Dick Miller was the opposite. That Guy Dick Miller unfortunately doesn’t explore this in detail but does sum it up in its final moments when Miller looks straight into the camera and says he hopes people enjoy the film, it will probably be his last one. Then his wife hands him the phone and he says, “Hello?…Yeah, I’m available.”
Dick Miller, born December 25th, 1928, died January 31st, 2019, was the exact opposite of Walter Paisley: he took statues and gave them life, covered them with flesh and blood. He was the character actor of character actors. And as I think about his career I think about the saying that a great actor knows to leave the audience wanting more. Dick Miller was a very great actor.




And Now You Snow.


One year when I was in college it snowed heavily. Since the University Of Evansville campus is quite small and since most professors lived within walking distance I said, “Hey, what are they gonna do, cancel classes?” They cancelled classes. I just wish they’d cancelled them sooner because I had a test the afternoon it started snowing and I ended the final essay question ended with, “Foucault’s reasoning on this matter was I can’t go on because it’s snowing and there are people playing in the snow and I’m sitting right next to the window and it’s impossible to concentrate”. Anyway we had a lot of free time with classes cancelled and some time after midnight a group of us decided we should build a snow sculpture right in front of the main door of the administration building. We had a very specific shape for this snow sculpture: it would be tall and narrow and have kind of a rounded top, sort of like a mushroom, but we also planned to put two large spheres on either side of the base. Unfortunately it turned out to be hard to get such a structure erect, if you catch my snowdrift. We briefly tried to use a trash can as a frame until we got chased off by campus security after I unsuccessfully tried to argue that we were celebrating the Japanese festival of Kanamara Matsuri early, but that’s another story.

In the end I think we learned a valuable lesson even if I’m not sure what lesson that was, and so did the person who ran into the snowman pictured above. Some people decided to build a snowman in their own yard and some idiot decided to drive across their yard in a truck and run into it–not realizing that the nine-foot snowman was built around a tree trunk. There’s a valuable lesson in that and this time I know what it is, although I’m not so sure about the guy driving around with a smashed-in front to his pickup truck as a very visible display to the world that he picked a fight with a snowman and lost.


The Long View.

A funny thing about most street art is that you can usually only see it from the street it’s on. Even if it’s high up on a building there are often other buildings around blocking the view so it’s only as you turn a corner that you see it and then it disappears just as quickly.

This mural painted on a tall tower is an exception. As you drive along I-40 headed East toward downtown Nashville you can see it in the distance. From a long way away it’s not even clear what it is but it’s obviously something. It’s only as you get close, and part of the beauty of it is you can get really close—it overlooks the parking lot of White Bison Coffee, a local shop, which is fitting because it puts two things that are distinctly Nashville together in one place.

The mural is the work of internationally known New Zealand artist Guido Van Helten, and, looking at it, you might wonder who the guy is. He’s Lee Estes, a long-time resident of the area, a Nashville neighborhood known as The Nations. Why it’s known as that is somewhat controversial with no clear answer. Mr. Estes remembers much of the history of the area and the city. Growing up his family didn’t have indoor plumbing and raised chickens for eggs and meat. Actually that last part hasn’t changed—or rather it changed with zoning laws that ended the keeping of livestock within county limits. Then it changed back in 2014 when the city council voted to allow homeowners to have chickens on their property, but only chickens. Roosters are verboten, although at least one person has violated that rule—there is at least one part of the city where I’ve heard crowing, but that’s another story.

There’s more detail about the mural at isupportstreetart, and also more pictures. An important detail I missed when taking pictures of this mural is that on the other side of the building there are two young boys next to Mr. Estes, perfectly combining the old and the new.

High, Low.

When Marcel Duchamp signed a urinal and stuck it in a museum he was making a point about what’s art and what isn’t, but what point was he making? Was he saying that a mass-produced object in the right setting becomes a work of art, or was he saying that people should look at mass-produced objects as art no matter where they are? After all somebody had to design a urinal, and something can be useful as well as aesthetically pleasing. Or at least aesthetically interesting.

What I’m getting at is that the definition of art is pretty loose, even arbitrary. Actually Calvin & Hobbes put it best:

Source: Pinterest

Decorating a dumpster turns it from, well, just a dumpster, into art. Or at least turns it into a background for art, a place for art. Put a picture on it, any picture, and a dumpster becomes a museum too.

And I can’t think of a way to segue fluidly into this but years ago I was in Edinburgh and a homeless man came up and asked me for some change. “I’m not gonna lie to ye,” he said, “I just really want a pint.” I couldn’t resist that honesty so I gave him a pound. He hugged me and thanked me. He told me his name was Hamish and we started talking. He asked where I was from. When I said Nashville he yelled “Elvis! My favorite singer!” I didn’t have the heart to say that while Elvis did a lot of recording in Nashville his home base was Memphis, but the more Hamish talked the more I realized there was plenty he could tell me about Elvis. Hamish was the first person to tell me Elvis was a Monty Python fan which I believed but which also completely changed my perspective of Elvis because it’s not something that often comes up when people talk about The King. It turns out the Pythons themselves didn’t know Elvis was a fan–Eric Idle only learned what a fan Elvis was a few years ago–which still surprises me. Elvis wasn’t shy about contacting people—consider his meeting with Nixon in the White House—so the only thing I still wonder about is why he never called up any of the Pythons to tell them he was a fan.


%d bloggers like this: