American Graffiti.

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

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.

Source: TYWKIWDBI

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.

 

Art Matters.

When I took my first art history course it was simple. In fact it was just as simple when I took my last art history course. Art history was like regular history: a linear progression of events, or movements, starting with cave paintings, which were prehistory really, and going up through the millenia with widely spaced high points: Egypt, Greece, Rome, then there was the Renaissance, and the rediscovery of perspective. Neo-classicism gave way to Romanticism and then Impressionism was followed by Fauvism or Expressionism. As the chronometer ticked over to the 20th century everything exploded into a bunch of isms: Cubism, Orphism, Futurism. World War I prompted Dadaism and Surrealism. Before World War II the major center of art was Paris. After World War II it was New York, with Abstract Expressionism followed by Pop Art followed by…well, if they made it to that point the art history classes just sort of fizzled out there. Nothing was left: art history had ended. For some art historians Andy Warhol’s soup cans were the capstone. For others the end had come before that: the first time a prehistoric person placed pigment on a cave wall was leading up to the moment Jackson Pollock dripped a blob of paint, breaking the connection between brush and canvas that had been the basis of all art. The greatest emphasis was on artists who were mostly white and mostly European and mostly men, artists who were centered in Italy, Paris, and New York, with brief asides to Berlin, Moscow, and London, because they were the Artists Who Mattered.
Even from the beginning, from that first art history class, there was a question in the back of my mind: what about artists in other parts of the world? Artists from Japan, the South Pacific, South America, and Africa influenced a lot of those 20th century isms, so why did the mostly anonymous artists who produced those works matter less than Manet, Van Gogh, Picasso? The history of art history follows a pretty simple pattern. Vasari, whose Lives Of The Artists is considered the first work of art history, focused on artists he knew. In the 16th century the internet was pretty rudimentary and unreliable; dial-up hadn’t even been invented yet, and that remained true up to and even through 1950 when E.H. Gombrich published The Story Of Art, the book that was either used or influenced every art history course I ever took. And I get it. In order to make sense of art, in order to make a story of art, a few scholars had to pick what they liked and cram it into an alley. And to keep the art history classes simple we students were supposed to ignore the buildings, the whole cities, the whole world on either side.
I like taking pictures of graffiti I find but I’m also always curious about the artists behind it, and some time ago created an Instagram account just to follow them, and through that I learned that an artist I’d seen, whom I only knew by the tag Betor, had died of a drug overdose on Christmas Day 2016. Or rather it helped explain some pictures I found. Through Instagram I learned Betor was part of a group of artists who worked together and influenced each other–what art historians might call a movement, or what they might label with an ism.

These works aren’t done by Betor. They’re done by friends of Betor, artists who admired his work. They’re tributes. There are more on Instagram, and messages too from artists who knew him, and others who are sorry they never met him but admired his work. I feel the same way. Betor was a person who mattered. An organization, A Betor Way, was founded in his memory to help anyone struggling with addiction.

There is no one story of art. Art doesn’t end with the death of any artist, or with any particular movement. And if I had to give only one explanation for why I’m so interested in graffiti it would be this: because it matters.

 

Dragon Through The Holidays.

Source: Washington Post

Around the holidays, if we can find time, my wife and I make a couple of travel mugs of hot chocolate and drive through neighborhoods looking at people’s Christmas decorations. For some reason once the season is over I always forget that the lights are one of my favorite things about the holidays. When I was a kid I begged my parents to get Christmas lights because I envied other houses that had them, and then we did get them and I realized it’s not that exciting to have lights on the outside when you’re inside the house.

Putting up lights and other decorations is a way of sharing the holiday spirit with the community, but it’s also a personal expression. The holidays bring people together but everyone also has their own ways of celebrating. There’s a house I pass every day on my way to work that has a large inflated Santa on one side of their yard and a bear holding a dreidel on the other and it always makes me smile.

I thought even more about the overlap between the individual and the community at the holidays when I read about Diana Rowland, a writer—her books include My Life As A White Trash Zombie and How The White Trash Zombie Got Her Groove Back and they sound fantastic—who made a Christmas display with dragons in her front yard. And that sounds fantastic too. I love creative decorating and the dragons are also a Halloween-Christmas crossover. The best decorations, I say, are the ones that can multitask.

Anyway Rowland got an anonymous letter from a neighbor:

Source: Washington Post

There’s a lot to pick apart here. Why are the dragons only “marginally acceptable” at Halloween? Since when are dragons “demonic”? And isn’t the real spirit of Christmas, or, for that matter, this time of year no matter what holidays you celebrate, the spirit of joy?

Rowland had the perfect response to the anonymous complaint, too: she put up more dragons.

After all it’s also the season of giving.

Windows.

With more and more holiday shopping happening online—Cyber Monday has been around since 2005—it’s hard to believe holiday windows are still important. A November 21, 2018 New York Times article gives a brief rundown of holiday windows past and present and explains why they still matter, although there are some stores that are closing. For some this will be their last Christmas. It’s a sad end to a tradition that dates back to at least 1874 when Macy’s created a Christmas window. More than half a century later in the 1926 Handbook Of Window Display, author William Nelson Taft (no relation to the president and Supreme Court justice that I can tell) said, “A number of stores have found that the mere fact of displaying appropriate Christmas goods, attractively boxed, not only stimulates buying but starts the holiday rush considerably earlier.” He’s a bit prosaic. Jean Shepherd, in his book In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, which was partly the basis for A Christmas Story, gets a little more poetic reminiscing about a holiday window from the year he got his Red Ryder BB gun, with a Santa’s workshop display so elaborate it “made Salvador Dali look like Norman Rockwell.”

Window displays aren’t limited to the holidays, though. For more than forty years Gene Moore created elaborate setups for windows at Tiffany’s in New York. In June 1971 he created a series that told the story of a jewel thief with papier-mache mice. The president of Tiffany’s, Walter Hoving, got an angry letter from the president of Cartier for making light of the “hazards of owning fine jewelry”. Hoving’s reply: “Nuts.” He was right. If you can afford a Cartier watch you can afford a sense of humor, but that’s another story.

This is one of the scenes, from the book Windows at Tiffany’s : the art of Gene Moore (H. N. Abrams, 1980).

Window displays aren’t all fun and games, though. This is from the article:

“We track how many people are taking their photographs and sharing them back out,” said Frank Berman, an executive vice president and the chief marketing officer of Bloomingdale’s. “We also have methods in place to track how many people are passing by the windows, stopping and engaging. We also track the amount of traffic coming into the store and the conversion rates. We’re up in terms of traffic this holiday season.”

Is it weird that I’m creeped out by that? I know marketing is the reason for the season, but it bothers me that when I’m looking at store windows they might be looking back.

That’s partly why I put a picture of Parnassus Books at the top of this post, and here’s another of their main window.

Their window displays of books, I hope, draw people in. Bookstores are probably the most endangered of retail stores, and yet bookstores are places where the whole idea is to browse without necessarily knowing what you might find, and books open windows in your mind. There was an event at Parnassus the night I took that picture, and that’s one of the great contradictions of bookstores: they’re public spaces where people can get together to share the private experience of reading. And also every year my Christmas wish list is pretty much all books.

 

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