Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Hockney's New Project + Sketchbook Pro (II)

One of my avatar-heroes in iDrawing/iArt, David Hockney (1937-) continues to push the boundaries of his artistic practice, as Martin Gayford discusses in his article "The Mind's Eye," in the current (September/October 2011) issue of MIT's Technology ReviewHe recounts how Hockney has been using a special rig, holding 9  high-definition cameras, to view and photograph nature scenes, simulating and expanding the experience of (the) human eye(s) and cameras.  With a small crew he travels and photographs moving and still settings, in some cases the same ones but during differing seasons.

Together these produce works and a visual experience akin, Hockney argues, to and yet distinct from that of human vision, which usually entails two lens and complex, ever-changing light, depth, spatial, and color perception, but the resultant pieces also differ from the experience of a single lens digital, 35-mm or movie camera. They are also akin to but distinct from Hockney's photomosaics and collage photographs (images that really reoriented my way of thinking about photography for a while) of the 1980s. Hockney has been presenting the resulting pieces as 18-screen videos (moving pictures in the literal sense), though it's not clear when they'll be on exhibit. 

A still from the 18-screen video May 12th 2011 Rudston to Kilham Road 5 PM. Credit: ©David Hockney

Hockney has also continued digital drawing, having moved from a tablet and stylus to his iPhone, on which he has produced his now celebrated daily drawings of flowers, outdoor scenes, and abstractions, and then onto his iPad, on which he has enlarged the iPhone images and undertaken really remarkable outdoor drawings that mirror some of his most recent paintings and photographs. The article reproduces one of his pieces using that hardware, and Brushes, which is another popular iPhone and iPad drawing software. 

This October, Gayford's new book, A Bigger Message: Conversations with David Hockney, will be available, as will some of those iPhone and iPad drawings, as part of the exhibit "David Hockney's Fresh Flowers: Drawings on the iPhone AND iPad," at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, October 8, 2011 through January 1, 2012.

Hockney's work and daring have always inspired me, and I intend to keep exploring what sorts of very simple--such as the abstractions below--and very complex possibilities exist with both of these two technologies (and any new ones Apple develops that I can get my hands, even second and third ones, on).  Yesterday I wrote about playing with Sketchbook Pro for the iPad and some of the differences with the iPhone's version of Sketchbook (Mobile), which I've increasingly familiarized myself with. I posted a few abstractions and illustrations I'd done on the iPhone, so today here are a few recent life portraits I undertook on the iPad, along with some iPhone abstract drawings.

LIFE PORTRAITS (drawn right on the spot, not from photos)

Self Portrait (@ Joe's Coffee, Manhattan) 
Self-portrait, at Joe's Coffee, Manhattan, iPad drawing
(last year I drew a self-portrait, one of my first in about 20 years, upon turning 45, so here's one for this summer. I did look in the mirror in front of me a few times, unlike last year, when I drew myself from memory)
  Conductor on the PATH 
Path conductor, underneath the Hudson, iPad drawing

Man at the café 
Man at café, Manhattan, iPad drawing

Jerusalem (I), iPhone drawing
  Jerusalem II 
Jerusalem (II), iPhone drawing
Transatlantic, iPhone drawing
  Las Vegas 
Las Vegas, iPhone drawing
  Las Vegas II 
Las Vegas (II), iPhone drawing
Ellsworth, iPhone drawing

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Playing with Sketchbook Pro

It's a busy week, so here are a few iPhone and iPad sketches, of a different sort than my usual portraits. I'm still learning how to use Sketchbook Pro for the iPad; it's almost identical to the iPhone version of Sketchbook, but the screen requires a slightly different kind of dexterity.  I've also figured out how to play with text on both formats. In the past, as some of my posted images show, I've had to improvise with my cursive and block print lettering. I'll post a few iPad portraits tomorrow.

iPad abstract drawing
"Heart" (iPad abstract drawing)
iPhone abstract drawing
"West Village" (iPad abstract drawing)
iPad abstract drawing
"Sunday" (iPad abstract drawing, after Fred Bendheim's work)
iPad abstract drawing
"Irene" (iPad abstract drawing)
iPhone art
"This is not a blank page" (iPhone conceptual drawing)
iPhone art
"The colors of America" (iPhone conceptual drawing)
iPhone illustration
"Plato's Theory of Art Made Simple: Part 1": iPhone illustration (I thought of these as I was trying to visualize simple drawings to illustrate aesthetic concepts and theories)
iPhone illustration
"Plato's Theory of Art Made Simple: Part 2": iPhone illustration (another in this series)
iPhone illustration
"Kant's Theory of Art Made Simple (but not really)": iPhone illustration (another in this series--do you think Kant would be turning over in his grave at the people depicted?)

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Irene Passes Through + Poem: Samuel Menashe

The fiercesome Hurricane Irene has now moved through New York and New Jersey, but not without a tremendous amount of damage From its first touchdown on North Carolina's Outer Banks, on through its departure onto Canada, it has left an estimated 23 people dead; vast areas, from neighborhoods to train lines, under water; an estimated $7 billion worth of damage in the its wake; and millions of people without electricity.  Thankfully, however, the worst predictions for New York City and New Jersey did not occur. Some of the first comments I saw online this morning expressed peevishness that the storm wasn't as bad as predicted, but I for one am sighing with relief. While I could always do without the media's steady fomenting of panic and frenzy, I don't fault the local governors' and mayors' evacuation orders or their tone of seriousness.  As commonplace as it may sound, better that we're safer than experience another Hurricane Katrina and its horrific aftermath.

Up close, the storm was among the more awful ones that I've witnessed, but I still rate last winter's Snowpocalypse as worse. It began with all the trees and bushes soughing, before they thrashed about. Then came bursts of showers that intensified and would not stop.  Irene's winds and rain battered the outer walls, windows and roof for hours, at certain points so loudly and with such force that I thought it was stripping the bricks and paint off and, as the Snowpocalypse did, opening the sashes to drive its mess inside.  We had not fully locked the front door so it punched it open and drenched the alcove.  It flung some of the garden's plants and poles around, and left small pools in a few spots, both outside and in the basement. They were manageable, though, with a wet vac. This afternoon I drove through a number of neighborhoods in or near downtown Jersey City where some flooding did occur, so I am especially thankful we're on higher ground and that we spent a prince's ransom replacing the cracked old clay piping that runs under the house, which sent most of the water right out to the sewers, which had just been cleared in preparation for the onslaught.

One point of concern the neighbors and we avoided in advance was the falling of the huge old sycamore tree, well over 100 years old, that once stood out front. It had begun to die a few years ago after a persistent gas leak, and after seasons of repeatedly pestering the gas company and the city, the Forestry Department felled it in late this past spring, chipping what remained of the trunk and roots right after I returned in June. Every day I miss this tree, especially the shade it provided, and despite its propensity to shed its bark at all times of the year, its immense bowers that promised several weeks of fall raking, and its magical ability to draw people of all ages to stand beneath and act as if no one else could see them, even though they were visible from every point on the block; but I am glad that it was not around to be uprooted, like the trees pictured below, and tossed onto our neighbors' or our front porches.

I snapped the first few photos below during the storm, so only raindrops and darkness are visible, but the subsequent photos are from a mini-tour of some nearby areas. I could not get into Liberty State Park because the police had blocked all the entrances to its piers and docks off, but I captured what I could. One fascinating thing to me was to see how different the sky appeared looking north, where the storm clouds were hovering, versus south, where the sun and blue were peeking through.  By this evening the gray had returned, bringing autumn temperatures. We could some more of that heavy July sun right now, to dry things out, before the fall fully settles in.
The rain coming down, during the hurricane (Irene)
The street, during the hurricane
The backyard, during the hurricane 
The backyard, during the hurricane 
Street lights out, Pacific Ave., Jersey City 
Street lights out and a worker shoveling near a sewer grate in Jersey City's Greenville section 
Flooded train tracks, Jersey City 
Some of the flooded train tracks near Liberty State Park and Liberty National Golf Course
Post-Irene puddle 
A large post-hurricane puddle 
Fallen sycamore, post-Irene 
An uprooted tree near the local cemetery 
Fallen tree, after Irene
More downed boughs, near the cemetery
Post-Irene damage in the cemetery 
A partially toppled headstone (there were many) 
Liberty State Park in Irene's wake 
Looking out towards the Hudson, from Liberty State Park 
Dry dock, Liberty State Park (now the boats are sitting in water) 
The dry dock area, now full of water (just past the lawn), Liberty State Park (the rising Freedom Tower is the black building in the middle of the photo, Goldman Sachs's tower is the tallest one, to the left) 
Marina, Liberty State Park, Jersey City 
Another view of the dry marina, and the drenched grass 
Heavy winds, Liberty State Park 
The trees being blown about by the strong winds 
Lower Manhattan, from Jersey City 
Lower Manhattan from Exchange Place (there didn't appear to be any flooding or damage over here) 

Exchange Place, after Hurricane Irene 
Exchange Place and the Ferry terminal 
Looking south, from Liberty State Park 
Looking south, with the sunlight sky behind the clouds 
Looking north, from Liberty State Park 
North, in Irene's wake 
Near the turnpike, Jersey City and Manhattan in the distance 
Manhattan and Jersey City's downtown, from near the New Jersey Turnpike


On Twitter I noted the passing of poet Samuel Menashe (1925-2011), who left this world this past Monday. I had never heard of him until some while ago my friend Eric H., a poet and artist, suggested after hearing Menashe read that I check his work out.  Though he occasionally taught, he spent most of his life outside academe and thus outside its structures of recognition and acclamation; he was of the exact generation as many now canonical American poets, including Allen Ginsberg, Frank O'Hara, James Merrill, James Schuyler, Barbara Guest, John Ashbery, and Robert Creeley. Unlike all of them, Menashe also struggled to publish his work, in spite of its strengths, because it and he did not fit easily into any schools.  Belated attention--and funds--came his way at age 78 when the Poetry Foundation bestowed upon him its inaugural Neglected Master Award in 2004.  Menashe is a remarkably economical poet, creating tiny "machines" made of words of the sort that William Carlos Williams wrote about, condensing and thus tuning every word and mining musical possibilities, often while tackling weighty subjects, drawn from his life and from Biblical themes. It's a compression at odds with a great deal of prosy, talky English-language poetry, of all kinds, of the last 40 or so years, though not out of keeping with those contemporary poets working in condensed, free verse and non-fixed forms, like Kay Ryan, Rae Armantrout, Ed Roberson, and Lenard D. Moore, or, going further back, with the poets of traditions ranging from the Japanese haiku and haibun to the Turkish and Arabic epigrammarians to the Spanish masters working in concise forms, including the microgramas, that Jorge Carrera Andrade speaks of in his book of that name.  One effect of concision in Menashe's poems is to increase in the metaphysical power, sometimes shading into mysticism, that he seeks to cultivate through his subject matter and his deft use of ambiguity. In the poem below, I read not just a poem about the natural world, but the story of Moses as well, and, more generally, about knowledge, answers, the world's code, visible if one looks more deeply into all around us.  Reading Menashe doesn't require huge amounts of time, and offers swift rewards. But those quick reads will make you want to return. Give him a try when you can.

Reeds Rise from Water

rippling under my eyes
Bulrushes tuft the shore

At every instance I expect
what is hidden everywhere

Copyright © Samuel Menashe From THE NICHE NARROWS, by Samuel Menashe, Jersey City: Talisman House, from Archipelago, Vol. 5, No.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Irene On the Way + What Obama's Read(ing) + Gawker's 50 Worst States

Lower Manhattan, from Hoboken, or The Calm before the Storm
Irene, if I recall correctly from my long-ago high school Greek classes, means "peace." This imminent, ironically named Hurricane Irene, which has already slammed Puerto Rico, DR, Haiti, and the Bahamas, is now hurtling northwards towards the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and weather forecasters expect it to tear into coastal New Jersey and the densely populated New York metro area beginning Saturday evening through Sunday morning. I try not to take storms of this sort too lightly, but I've observed more than once that over the years, the New York-area meteorologists and news reporters in general have tended to overplay them, predicting typhoons and cyclones when what's shown up are, well, bad but not world-ending calamities. If the tenor of the brouhaha is at all credible, all living along the Eastern seaboard should be on trains, planes, buses or in cars to Montana.

New York City's emperor, Mike Bloomberg, began talking about mandatory evacuations from the city's low-lying coastal areas and all its islands yesterday, with similar calls coming from Long Island's two county executives, and New York's governor, Andrew Cuomo, has ordered the MTA trains to stop running tomorrow at noon, the first time there's been such a pre-storm related shutdown in the system's history. (We kept saying that the subway trains ran no matter what the weather problems, but of late that has not been the case. What happened? No one has answers.) The Port Authority is shutting down all the local airports and the PATH trains by midday tomorrow, and New Jersey Transit trains and the light-rail will also be on ice.  Hospitals, eldercare centers, and many other facilities are being evacuated, but not, it seems, Rikers Island, which seems particularly cruel under the circumstances. Here in New Jersey, our Youtube performer masquerading as a governor, Chris Christie, has told people to flee the shore, which apparently is in the direct path of the storm and be nothing more than exposed rock, coral, hulls, siding, syringes, and empty water bottles by the time this storm has passed through, and Jersey City's colorful mayor, Jerramiah Healey, after mulling whether to say something today or tomorrow, has decided to issue a voluntary evacuation order from neighborhoods too close to the Hudson River, New York Harbor, the Hackensack River, or Newark Bay, i.e., anywhere downtown or on the Newark side of Jersey City. We thankfully are not in a flood plain or zone, though if we were, I have yet to see where we're supposed to go (the nearest shelter is at the Izod Center in East Rutherford, in the low-lying, marshy Meadowlands, but maybe they know something I don't). I haven't heard any mention at all of nearby Bayonne, which is in the direct path of the storm (the various evacuation maps leave blank all other municipalities, so New York City's left LI and NJ blank, while Jersey City's stops at the borders with Secaucus, etc.). Do the Bayonnaise not count? Nearly all of Hoboken's waterfront sits fairly low, so it could be a ghosttown come midday tomorrow. And a very pretty, expensive little ghosttown it will be.

NY JET Nick Mangold, signing autographs in Bryant Park today
The local Gay Pride celebration has been moved to...October. The Jets-Giants preseason game will take place on Monday instead of Sunday. Several music festivals are being postponed or canceled outright. No Dave Matthews, no The Roots. (I've seen the latter, live, years ago, in a moshpit in Charlottesville.) I didn't go to the store to but rather to my daily redoubt, the library, but C did go to one on the Jersey side of the river and said that it was a madhouse. No surprise there; people have been whipped up into a frenzy of shopping for provisions, essentials, and things they didn't realize they needed, like Fritos. I guess if Irene does pan out, we can say we were prepared. If it doesn't, the economy gets a needed, though temporary, boost. And all who could afford to will have extra canned goods--and lots of plastic water bottles. Now, what about all the people who cannot afford to evacuate and what about all those prisoners at Rikers?


It's no surprise our president is a reader, because he's a damned good writer. Given how much Barack Obama has had to deal with since before taking office, though, I'm amazed he reads anything that isn't a Congressional bill or a précis of one; a PDB; a Blackberry SMS text; snippets of whatever his staff culls from social media sites, newspapers, and so forth; and mash notes from some billionaire or corporation. But he does read books. Not a University of Chicago Law School prof-level any more, but nevertheless an impressive amount, at least compared to most people out there, I'd imagine, who do not have to read books as part of their job, and who have very busy full-time jobs that include dealing with lots of crazy people and quite a few very demanding billionaires and corporations. Recently I came across this list of books that President Obama has read since 2008.

Several things immediately struck me: there is only one book by a woman, and only two by writers of color. Not good. Not good not just because his reading really ought be diverse, but because there are lots of excellent books by women, by people of color, by women of color, by all kinds of people, that he could be reading, and which might even give him a bit of a wake-up call and a reminder of who voted for him. (Lots of women and people of color!)  There's a book by Tom Friedman, as ridiculous a member of the punditocracy as exists (he's the very, very, very wealthy person who suggested the US invade Iraq to show them, or someone, something, in response to 9/11. Real brainiac.) That is not good, unless it's to assist him in his cultivation of negative capability. But I think Barack Obama has demonstrated that he has more than enough negative capability, and deeply grasps the concept.

Also, there's only one book of poetry. This president could stand to read some more poetry. Like, by Langston Hughes and June Jordan and his inaugural poet and a whole lot of other poets, living and only living in print. Hell, given what he's dealing with, John Milton's Paradise Lost wouldn't be a bad place to start. And it's an enjoyable, if long, read too. A so-so novel by formalist poet Brad Leithauser ain't gonna cut it. There're no books about science or technology, especially the net. There are far too few books about economics, and zero about the causes of the economic meltdown. Many are the very good books about that damned economic collapse which most of us are still living through. Someone near the president should gently and firmly pass one to him.

And he doesn't seem to be taking many pointers from the books on or bios of Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, or Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Yes, John Adams was a remarkable person, but not such a good president. (His son was remarkable too, but even worse in that office. He was quite good as a Congressperson, though.) But then it seems the ghost of Herbert Clark Hoover, also a remarkable person and a terrible economic steward, hovers over this administration for various reasons, so perhaps those biographies have gone down like the fiction (Franzen, Mitchell, etc.).

Today I came across this list of books he's taken on his current vacation: "The Bayou Trilogy by Daniel Woodrell, a series of crime stories; Rodin's Debutante by Ward Just, a novel set in Obama's hometown of Chicago; Cutting for Stone, a novel by Abraham Verghese; To the End of the Land, a novel by David Grossman; and The Warmth of Other Isabel Wilkerson." Somewhat better, though still mostly men. He is planning to read Wilkerson's superb book on the Great Migration, which is a very good thing. At least one person each has recommended the Grossman and Verghese books to me. Now, more poetry (someone on his staff could go through my April Poetry Foundation twitter feed for names of poets--I quoted over 150 contemporary and past ones, of all backgrounds), more books on science and technology, something on the people that caused the meltdown (hint, hint, Mr. President, they're giving you lots of money now), and some more books on US presidents who figured out how to turn things around for the better; i.e., nothing on James Buchanan, please!


I meant to post a link to Gawker's descending ranking of our "Worst 50 States" a few weeks back, but better late than never.  I take some issues with some of their rankings, having lived in about 6 of these states and visited many others, but the writeups are often hilarious, and the comments sections on at least one brims with the kind of craziness that proves the Web can be both an amazing and dismaying reflection of who we are as a society. Just a few points: New York state should not be ranked as the least worst, by far. Also, New Jersey should not be in the top 5 worst. That is just pure New York chauvinism (Ernest has a better word about such things, but I'm not going to use it). As is often the case in some of these lists, people just don't know what to say about certain states at all--South Dakota, Missouri, etc.  I admit that I wouldn't know what to say about South Dakota, though I would know what to say about Missouri. But the puckish paragraphs on Mississippi, South Carolina, Ohio, Delaware, Alabama, Texas, FLORIDA!, and a few others are worth the rest of the entire effort.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

RIP Nick Ashford

I was so sorry to learn of the death of composer, singer and hitmaker Nick Ashford (1941-2011), who with his fellow songwriter and later wife Valerie Simpson (1946-), wrote hit after hit that I and millions of others grew up on.  It is hard to believe that he was 70 years old.  He had suffered from throat cancer, and died in a hospital in New York on Monday. He leaves his wife, two daughters, and other family members.

A native of Fairfield, South Carolina, Ashford met Simpson in Harlem in 1963 at White Rock Baptist Church, where they began collaborating. Their early recording career did not pan out, but they began writing songs that a number of important figures recorded. These hits included Ray Charles's "Let's Get Stoned"; Marvin Gaye's and Tammi Terrell's "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," "You're All I Need to Get By," "Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing," "Reach Out and Touch (Somebody's Hand)"; Diana Ross's versions of "Reach Out and Touch (Somebody's Hand)" and "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," and "Remember Me." I had no idea that they had also written such hit songs as Teddy Pendergrass's "Is It Still Good To You"; The Brothers Johnson's "Ride-O-Rocket"; and, according to my mother, my childhood favorite Chaka Khan's "I'm Every Woman" and "Clouds"; and Chaka Khan with Rufus's "Keep It Coming" and "Ain't Nothing But Maybe."

Ashford and Simpson also wrote for Gladys Knight and the Pips, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, The Supremes, The Marvelettes, The Dynamic Superiors, and other Motown groups.  Ashford lent his voice and instrumental talents to numerous other recordings over the years as well. As the group Ashford and Simpson, they saw their own recording career finally take off in the 1970s, with hits like "Don't Cost You Nothin'" (1977), " "Is It Still Good to Ya" (1978), "Found a Cure" (1979), "Street Corner" (1982), and the hit that was one of the songs my sophomore year of college, "Solid." ("Solid as a rock....") With his wife, Ashford established New York's Sugar Bar in 1996, at 254 W. 72nd Street on the Upper West Side, and it has become an important venue for seeing some of the best local and international talents in R&B, soul, jazz, and Caribbean music.  Yesterday evening, performers, including luminaries such as Freddie Jackson, honored and mourned Nick Ashford's passing at Sugar Bar.

Here are a few clips of Ashford & Simpson's songs, and of the incredible duo themselves, singing their way into listeners' hearts, and history. RIP, Nick Ashford.

Ashford & Simpson, "Solid" (no embedding) Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" Diana Ross, "Remember Me" Chaka Khan, "I'm Every Woman" Teddy Pendergrass, "Is It Still Good To Ya"

Borges' Birthday + Poem/Translation: Borges

Today would be the 112th birthday of Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986), the poet, fiction writer, essayist, and aesthete, who was without a doubt one of Argentina's and Latin America's greatest gifts to the world of arts and letters.  I tend to think of Borges as a fiction writer, since it was through the genre that I first encountered his work, and it was as an innovator in the short fictional form that his global reputation took hold, but he began his writing career in his native country and, I think it's fair to say, thought of himself primarily as a poet. He was a very good one, sometimes an exceptional one. As he wrote in his poem "Inscripcíon" (Inscription), in the posthumous collection "Los conjurados" (The conjured ones), "Escribir un poema es ensayar una magia menor" (To write a poem is to attempt a minor magic.)  I should note that Borges is one of those writers (like Wallace Stevens, for example) whose politics and personal beliefs I disagree with, but whose work I nevertheless have a great affinity for.  His poetry in particular has grown on me as I have gotten older.  In honor of Borges' birthday, I am posting a few links to articles on him, and one of his late poems that I love, as it captures the simplicity, rhetorical skill, and evocative power that at his best he would often pack into the shorter poems he wrote towards the end of his life.

The links:
Christian Science Monitor: "Jorge Luis Borges: What Made Him So Good?"
Guardian Online: "Jorge Luis Borges' Google doodle celebrates the master of magical realism"
El Clarín (One of Argentina's major newspapers): "Hoy Borges cumpliría 112 y se los festejan"

The poem:
"El cómplice" (The Accomplice), from La cifra (The Limit) (1981) needs little explanation. It is also simple enough for me to translate, and all the faults in the English are mine, but if you can read it aloud in the Spanish, you also will get more of Borges' original music, the repetition of the "c" sounds in the first line, for example, or the sustained grammatical and syntactic repetitions of the first four lines, which he reverses in the fifth, shifting the speaker's agency from response to the head of the sentence, after he has endured a series of trials, including hell/the inferno.


Me crucifican y yo debo ser la cruz y los clavos.
Me tienden la copa y yo debo ser la cicuta.
Me engañan y y debo ser la mentira.
Me inciendan y yo debo ser el infierno.
Debo alabar y agradecer cada instante del tiempo.
Mi alimento es todas las cosas.
El peso preciso del universo, la humillación, el júbilo.
Debo justificar lo que hiere.
No importa mi ventura o mi desventura.
Soy el poeta.


They crucify me and I must be the cross and the nails.
They hand me the cup and I must be the hemlock.
They fool me and I must be the lie.
They set me on fire and I must be the inferno.
I have to praise and thank every instant of time.
Everything nourishes me.
The precise weight of the universe, humiliation, jubilation.
I must justify what wounds me.
My fortune or misfortune is of no importance.
I am the poet.

Copyright © Jorge Luis Borges, from La cifra (1981; Emece Editores, 1993). Translation © John Keene, 2011.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011


The crowded park after the earthquake
Bryant Park, after the quake
I'll admit it: I didn't feel it. I didn't feel anything. When the Eastquake or Virginiaquake or DCquake, the 5.8 earthquake centered near Mineral, Virginia (not far from where we used to live in Charlottesville) hit today, instead of sitting at my usual spot in the New York Public Library and pressing forward with my novel, I was dallying over a cup of coffee and the new New Yorker's unsettling article, by Jeffrey Toobin, on Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas and his wife Virginia "Ginni" Thomas, the Tea Party doyenne. I felt not a single seism or aftershock. BUT I realized soon enough that the hordes of people packing Bryant Park weren't just there to get some air, and I decided to ask someone what was going on. One man told me that he'd had to flee his 42nd St. office tower because of the swaying caused by the earthquake. I was incredulous. And then I overheard a number of people talking about it, so I asked a woman what was going on, and she said that her floor in the 42nd St. high rise in which she worked was swaying, and that it was "scary" and made her a little "nauseous." She said she had left voluntarily, but that others had been evacuated.  As I sat back down I overheard another person say it could be felt "all the way out in New Jersey," so I texted C, who was "all the way out in New Jersey" but hadn't heard or felt anything. I then checked Twitter and my HuffingtonPost app, and there it was: the earthquake!

Bryant Park after the earthquake
Bryant Park, after the quake
It did some damage in Washington, DC and the environs (though thankfully not to the nearby nuclear power plant), but served up nothing more than tremors further north and south.  A few tweets later and my coffee finished, I decided to press my way through the throngs and try to get some writing done. One of the guards in the 42nd St. entrance told me that people in the opulent main reading room, on the 3rd floor, had felt the floor shaking, and that the chandeliers also were swaying (!). Outside the study room where I read and write every day, the guard told me that his wife had called from the Bronx to say that the furniture in their apartment had moved. (Really, I thought? Okay.) In the study room, however, the scholars and writers were quietly taking notes, revising manuscripts, undertaking translations, tapping away at their keyboards, as if nothing had happened. On my way home, as I walked down 32nd St. to the PATH and passed under the awning of the La Quinta Manhattan, one of the bellhops was saying to everyone, "Everybody good? We survived the New York Summer Earthquake 2011!" A grin filled his face as people darted past, indifferently.

Monday, August 22, 2011

4 Shows at the Whitney: Everson, Arcangel, Cha & the Founding Collection

Soon, the Whitney Museum of American Art, one of the icons of the Upper East Side's Museum Mile district, will abandon its striking Marcel Breuer-and-Hamilton Smith-designed home on 75th Street and Madison Avenue, and head downtown, closer to its original home, which still exists and is now the New York Studio School of Art, on 8th Street and 5th Avenue, for a new space near the High Line Park and New York's main fine art neighborhood these days, Chelsea.  I am agnostic on whether the move is a good idea, but it's in the works, and the museum's trustees and patrons support it and have raised the money (or most of it needed) to move, so it goes. I personally will miss going uptown to the Whitney, though. I have seen many great exhibits there, including several controversial Biennials, yet even when it's packed I've never found it to be the tourist trap the always remarkable Met sometimes can be (cf. my post on the McQueen show), it has never attempted to be as exhaustive (and exhausting) in terms of canonical modern art as MoMa (so when I go I don't worry that I'm missing 2-3 exhibits I would like to see but don't have the time to), and yet the focus is on the artwork, instead of the overwhelming architecture of the building itself, a problem the Guggenheim sometimes presents.  As I love looking at art, the Whitney often summons me forth. Five floors: a morning or afternoon usually will do. So I visited four shows recently: More than That: Films by Kevin Jerome Everson (April 28-September 18, 2011); Cory Arcangel: Pro Tools (May 26-September 11, 2011); Xavier Cha: Body Drama (June 30-October 9, 2011); and, for a hot minute, Breaking Ground: The Whitney's Founding Collection (April 28-September 18, 2011). I could easily write four long reviews, so I'll be succinct about the shows, focusing on the first two, which engaged me the most.
Image from a Kevin Jerome Everson film, "Act One: Betty," Whitney Museum
Still from Everson's film "Act One: Betty"

Kevin Jerome Everson (b. 1965-), a professor at The University of Virginia, works in a range of forms, from filmmaking to sculpture and photography, and his assured grasp of the pictorial and how film can play with the plasticity of imagery and the pictorial space come through in the collection of short films, many (most?) of them 16mm transferred to video, playing in the exhibit. All appear have implicit narratives, but they compel you more to look and think than follow as you would traditional shorts, yet their experimental brevity and disjunction is different from that of experimental filmmaking as I tend to think of it. All of the films here focus on African-American lives. They give glimpses, all seemingly drawn straight from life, of a coherent world, drawn from Everson's imagination and from appropriated footage that he expertly edits, that on closer examination might not be the sum of its parts. Sitting through the films, I enjoyed the realities they created even as I realized how fictional(ized) they were.  Often but brief reels of seductive visual poetry--and in one case, "Blind Huber" (2005), Everson literalizes the poetic by including a snippet of a poem on beekeeping by poet Nick Flynn, which the poet reads aloud--Everson's mini-takes are often sly and effective commentaries on reality he and others (I included) not only live it, but feel it.  Moreover, Everson manages to balance impressive artfulness (from his skillful management of composition, light and darkness, pictorial depth) and the prosaic, without the artistic pretense that screams: "This is an art film, in a museum/gallery, and thus it's important." The films exude their playfulness and seriousness in equal turns.
Still from Everson's "American Motor Company"
Still from Everson's film "American Motor Company"
While I enjoyed all of them, three films really stand out: in "American Motor Company," Everson depicts two workers methodically posting a billboard that is at first unclear and unremarkable but which, when finished, reveals a black man posing in front of the fake town of Volkswagen, Ohio. That's it. Yet the film captures so much: the invisibility and precarity, and the physical efforts required, of blue-collar labor (especially today), the global consumerist fantasy, capitalism's contemporary spectacle, and the steady corporatization of every aspect of our lives, down to municipal government themselves. Only this one has a black face fronting it. "According To" is an especially powerful example of how Everson sometimes puts archival and found footage to novel and evocative ends. In this short piece, he links three different tracks: one is footage of an elderly African-American man, living in the rural South, who recounts his experiences working as a paperboy; the second features footage of a body being dredged from a lake, intercut with clips of notable black people, ranging from Martin Luther King Jr. to Floyd Patterson, and what appear to be civil rights protests; the third features crisp audio local news reports, including some that appear to refer to the drowning. Everson skillfully torques each element, so that the elderly man begins to qualify his accounts, suggesting that he wasn't always paid and that his memory might be faulty. The news reports also shift, also changing the story of the drowned man and our feelings about the nature of his death, and adding other crimes, including one in which an "elderly Negro woman" died in a fire that appears to be a hate crime, and a black man readily admits to having killed a white man. The images shift into sync with this changed narration, showing what appears to be a black body on a gurney; is it the drowned man, who may have been murdered, and how objective can any news be within the context of our particular national, racial, ethnic, and gendered histories? The third film, "Ninety-three" features the same actor in "According To," attempting to blow out the eponymous birthday candles, which, as we come to see, are the trick kind. In the interplay between the slow camera speed, the elderly man's expressive face and the flames lighting it, Everson has captured a world, his world, mine, ours, and by extension, reveals truths more broadly about humanity, as effectively as a poem. Multiple ones.

Cory Arcangel's "Various Self Playing Bowling Games" (2011)
Arcangel's "Various Self-Playing Bowling Games (aka Beat the Champ)"
Cory Arcangel (b. 1978-) is a computer whiz with a great sense of humor, and skills.  His smarts, technical expertise and wit are on ample display throughout this exhibit, which examines the interplay between off-the-shelf technologies and the artist's (and one could add, the hacker's) creative interventions, thus revising our thoughts about the latter in light of evolving legal and aesthetic notions of hardware and software. Throughout "Pro Tools," Arcangel presents now-outmoded technological tools that still offer ways of thinking through our relationship with the electronic and digital, virtual worlds in which we all now exist. What once was the height of sophistication--getting sculptures to move via computer algorithms; pen plotting machines; interactive video games--become almost passé, not just scientifically but in terms of their status as commodities. Arcangel, however, is interested in returning to them and seeing what he can learn from them and what they can still teach us today. Often as I walked through the exhibit I could feel a philosophical and conceptual impulse underlining these pieces; what would it be like to? or what would happen if I? simplistic as such questions sounded, might be among his basic starting points. What connects such starting points is a throughline exploring the effects of technological tools and their relationship to art historical and popular cultural discourses. In "Various Self-Playing Bowling Games (aka Beat the Champ)" (2011), Arcangel presents a wall of multi-channel, large-scale projections of video bowling games from the late 1970s to the 2000s, and in each he reprogrammed them to bowl the ball into the gutter. (He also does something similar with a miniature golf putting game, "Master" (2011), in another room.)  His hacks here undercut our sense of the "interactive," suggesting technology that has gotten out of hand, literally; we watch, are enthralled by the colors, maddened by the noise, but we have no control over the games whatsoever.  I immediately thought, what a metaphor for capitalism as most of us, the non-plutocrats, that is, experience it.

Arcangel's "Palms"
Another set of pieces that I was drawn to were Hello World (2011) and Palms (2011), simple line drawings that Arcangel produced using now superannuated pen and pencil-plotting machines from the 1980s and 1990s. I can recall how expensive and rarefied such equipment was back then, having worked in the late 1980s and early 1990s in an MIT laboratory in which large-scale plotting and printing was sometimes necessary, but as Arcangel tells us, such equipment can be purchased for a song on eBay, which is what he did, and with a bit of configuring, can be put to work playing with the idea of reproduction and mimesis more specifically. What is a copy, and how carefully can our eyes tell the difference? In Palms, Arcangel creates a series of images of palm trees that confuse the boundary between machine and artist-created drawings, challenging the viewer to discern which was produced by the pencil plotting device and which was produced by the artist himself.  In Hello World, he wrote a computer program to create line 2-dimensional drawings connecting random points between 0 and 100.  (One drawing was a blank page, as the program picked the number zero, mirroring works from the early conceptual period of the 1960s, as well as earlier white and blank canvases from the 20th century Euro-American art-historical canon.) In and through such works, as well as the kinetic sculptures (see the video I took below), Arcangel is also reinserting into the art-historical narrative mid-1960s computer art, long written out of the contested accounts of the development of contemporary art history, theory and practice.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Random Photos

Some posts are coming. In lieu of one, some photos.
In front of Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum
At Madame Tussaud's Wax museum
Giant racket, 34th Square
Giant racket, 34th Street The tophatters
The top-hatters, 34th Street
Dancers-acrobats, 42nd St.
Dancer-acrobats, in front of the New York Public Library's Schwarzman Branch
Lonely crusader, Times Square
Lonely crusader, 34th Street
Man shaving his head outdoors, Mercer St.
Man shaving his head outside, Mercer St., West Village Butcher's shop, 9th Ave.
Outside a butcher's shop, 9th Avenue
Surveyor, 42nd St.
Young man in a top hat
Young man in a top hat Waiting for a garment pick-up
Waiting for a pick-up
Willi Smith's plaque, Fall Walk of Fame, NYC
 Willi Smith's plaque, New York Fashion Walk of Fame Bright pole, Astor Place
Lamppost gaily adorned, Astor Place, West VillageJapanese crew filming at Kinokuniya in NYC
Japanese film crew, at Kinokuniya Street saviors
Hebrew Israelite street saviors, 14th StreetPrepping an empty storefront
Prepping an empty storefront, 14th Street Painting outdoors, NYC
Man painting outside the New York Public Library's Schwarzman Research Branch Outside the Port Authority
People waiting outside the Port Authority Bus terminal Cat on the tracks, Jersey City
Kitten on the train tracks, Jersey City