Thursday, December 29, 2011

A History of a Life in a List

A friend gave me a formidable and bright book this season called, A History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, which I am flipping through slowly, starting with "Early Writing Tablet," depicting the rationing of beer (90), jumping to "Admonitions Scroll" (248), "Mexican Codex Map" (545) and distracted by "Pieces of Eight" (516). The "Admonitions Scroll," if you were wondering, contains a parody of instruction for acceptable behavior for Chinese court ladies (the "imperial harem"); it is eleven feet long and was painted somewhere between 500-800 AD. Wait. Those three hundred years make an individual's life look like nothing more than a brushstroke, if that.

Like the premise of the book I just mentioned, articles in newspapers and magazines around this time of year (printed on rustling paper or found somewhere on your screen) tend toward the structure of lists. The year ends, and suddenly we have lists of what we liked about it. Or hated, thought was humorous, lame, delicious, etc. Maybe something two years ago was better, but no matter. A-listing we will go. We can list a history of a year in so many different ways: movies, books, music, games, wars, cities occupied, bank statements, receipts, tickets, emails, failed candidates, candy eaten… (I just learned that "stressed" backwards is "desserts." Not good.) These year-end lists are filled with hope, truly! They acknowledge that we had a list last year and that a list will undoubtedly show up again, albeit in different clothes, on the doorstep of next year as well.

A History of a Life in a List. How about the life list as an approach to making a book? A whole autobiography or collective biography through a theme such as: magazines read at different ages; kinds of cookies baked each year; favorite objects over time. What grabs us, what has kept grabbing at us as we've gotten older? Our taste and what is important to us changes over time, and we can learn by looking. In Michael Chabon's Manhood for Amateurs*, he talks about many of his childhood passions like comic book heroes, some of which he still acknowledges, others he has let go. Ray Bradbury in his book Zen in the Art of Writing: Releasing the Creative Genius Within You ** writes of an interesting way of making lists; you add "the" to a memory and create a series of nouns or titles. Some items in his list are "The Ravine," "The Fog Horn" and  "The Mirror Maze" (17). The little word "the" can have so much importance and can spark so many ideas. Using a list to organize a set of stories isn't new: Primo Levi used chemical elements as chapter titles and starting points in his book, The Periodic Table.*** From this choice the reader understands Levi's life and passion.

Continuing to flip through the 100 Objects book, I'm finding a magnificent calligraphic work dated 1520-1566 from Constantinople (Istanbul), Turkey (458), and a German woodcut by Dürer of a rhinoceros (482) from 1515. In three hundred or five hundred years none of today's material may matter; on the other hand, it may end up in another museum director's book, and our lives may reveal themselves to be some really nice brushsrokes. The books we make now may take us into the future.

Wishing you optimism in 2012.

The above photo was taken in downtown Los Angeles,  California of public art: Wishing Bells by Sook Jin Jo.

*a misleading title, I think: part of his definition of an amateur is a "lover; a devotee; a person driven by passion and obsession to…explore the imaginary world—oneself" (294) , not a half-baked person or brushstroke of a person at all; this book was funny and moving and gave me some insight into the writer
**a ridiculous title, another excellent book
***a good title,  another excellent book

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Cumulative Effect in Art and Books

After reading the play "At the Vanishing Point" by Naomi Iizuka I discovered that not only was I learning about characters cumulatively through overlapping monologues, but I was learning about the photographer and optician Ralph Eugene Meatyard of Lexington, Kentucky, who inspired the play. Coincidentally, his work is currently on exhibit at San Francisco's deYoung Museum. So I went to see it.

The high, white walls are lined with sixty photographs at face height, black and white, mostly from the 1960s and taken of Meatyard's family. Ah, family portraits, you say, but with a twist: the children and their mother occasionally wear masks and are posed with dolls. Occasionally, only the masks or only the dolls are in the photos. The settings are seemingly abandoned buildings, his backyard, other wildernesses, other structures like stairs or bridges. All of the photos were staged. What struck me most was not one singular shot here or there (here's one that particularly caught  my attention) but the cumulative effect of the photographs: the strength of the work based on all of the parts together. I've modified the medical term for relevance:
cumulative effect n. the state at which repeated [viewing]…may produce effects that are more pronounced than those produced by the first [view]…Also called cumulative action
My first impression of Meatyard's work: creepy. But since I come to see it all, I continued to look. Next, I decided that some of the staged pictures were irritating, too contrived, arranged just so, sometimes on a grid; I wanted to see a doll that had fallen over or was partly out of the frame. Then, a few of the oversized masks on the children began to haunt me: old people's heads on young people, premature aging? a look into the future? I became interested in a series of photos of one of his sons, taken at different times and wearing different masks, but always by the same wall: facets of one person, perhaps. By this time it was clear that Meatyard had a finite number of masks, a finite number of kids (3) and also tended to use the same objects over and over in different configurations and settings. I found myself drawn to the photos with nearly hidden people: I had to look twice to see the figures in the shadows. By the last photo I felt I understood his eye for juxtapositions, his interest in the uncanny: familiar, yet strange.

In addition to viewing a body of work, multiple viewings of one image or a repeated reading of one book can also have this cumulative effect. Multiple layers and various components may make the story understandable from various angles and on different levels; the meaning just gets deeper.

A museum is a familiar setting but can hold strange things. A museum is also a stage, as is a book, as is a box. All can house related—but possibly disparate—scenes, texts, and objects that all point to one story, mood, or idea. Not random (An Artist's Book is Not a Taco), but carefully selected and staged to lead the way down a particular path: to produce that cumulative effect, a relationship between the parts. The Meatyard exhibit did just this and I imagine the exhibition catalogue would do the same.

The Meatyard exhibit at the deYoung runs through February 26, 2012. Other photos, not in the show,  may be seen here.

Distance, 2010

photo by Sibila Savage

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Read Any Good Books Lately?

I eagerly open the books of fiction writers of current acclaim and sometimes find myself disappointed. These books have received awards, glowing reviews, the authors have been interviewed in places I admire, but the works themselves perplex me. They just don't get me excited either to read or to write; and inspiration to do either or both is what I expect from a book. Sometimes they downright turn me off. I don't like to dismiss books casually and I appreciate the vision, time, and impulse to write, so I decided to investigate why a book might hit me one way and not another.

Most recently, I decided that the qualities I'm looking for: a connection to why humans do what we do, refreshing language, rhythmical sentences, understated humor, a magical quality that speaks to one's subconscious mind, and a little tug at my heart or soul are not always what the awards are about. Inventiveness, cleverness, a novelty in the structure, and obvious wit (sometimes self-satisfied) catch some people's attention but not mine. Here are three writers whose works ricochet back to me, writers I keep trying to read with only partial success. Chabon and Egan, for the following examples, are Pulitzer Prize winners in fiction (2001, 2011, respectively), Lethem is a MacArthur fellow (2005).

I've tried Michael Chabon. So many people I know love his work. He is a talented writer, granted, but the books are too over-the-top for me. I lose sight of the story amongst the ornamentation of the quirks and the presence of the writer, although I was able to read much of The Yiddish Policemen's Union and enjoy it. But one 2009 article that he wrote in the New York Review of Books called, "Manhood for Amateurs: The Wilderness of Childhood" touched me and got to the core of what I'm looking for. It is about our landscapes and how children don't get to play outside and explore the world by themselves anymore and that by being deprived of this, their imagination and the possible future of art may be affected. The prose is elegant, effortless, magical, with no arrows pointing to craft. Perhaps I just prefer his personal essays and should try his book Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son.

I heard Jennifer Egan on the radio. She was a wonderful speaker: smart, thoughtful, articulate, curious, someone whose work I was eager to read. If you look up a picture of her you'll see that she is also good-looking. But the books let me down. I couldn't read past a few pages. The human interactions didn't feel right, the characters didn't speak to me. The inventiveness of A Visit from the Goon Squad is admirable. The concept is very clever. The story just doesn't interest me enough. I am surprised by her high intellectual concepts in light of how she describes her process. In an interview she says she writes fiction by hand "to bypass the thinking part of me and get to the more unconscious part, which is where all the good ideas seem to be." Consciously getting to the unconscious (I would say "subconscious") part is an extremely helpful, useful task for a writer. But I am looking for more than good ideas; I am looking for a magical connection.

Jonathan Lethem is an interesting mix. His earlier books are self-consciously about craft. He handles each sentence with polish, stringing together a perfect necklace of words per book. But then, with Motherless Brooklyn and Fortress of Solitude, the prose relaxes, soars: the magical quality appears. I came across an interview where he says, "A lot of people are led, understandably, to thinking of Fortress as a break to what preceded it. In my view, it's the opposite" partly because it has an "extensive commitment to mimetic tricks." Is he saying he crafted all the dreamlike qualities, that he consciously had control over all the magic? With tricks? I am dubious. I believe that a writer shapes the material, sometimes during, sometimes after, but I don't believe it can be crafted perfectly from the start without losing its liveliness. (I did read and like those two books, so perhaps it doesn't matter what he says about them.) I hunted further. Closer to the magic in a second interview, he says "And it's that game of not knowing what you're doing that, for me, is where the real energy comes from." That also sounds closer to the truth to me.

Perhaps it is that "not knowing" that I want to be part of. As a reader I don't want to be shut out of the mystery and be controlled; I want to go on the exploration with the author, be part of the process, get a chance to infer, imply, imagine, and read between the lines. And I want to trust that the author will show me something new, or help me to discover something I didn't know I knew already.

spread from A Death in the Family by James Agee

Among the Pulitzer Prize winners that I have read, these books moved me (prize date in parenthesis):
  • James Agee. A Death in the Family. An inventive, but not flashy work (see the only page, above, that visually describes a car from 1918 starting up and driving away). A book that seemed heartfelt, captured love, childhood, warm humor, family dynamics, and drew tears. (Awarded the prize in 1958, posthumously)
  • Elizabeth Strout. Olive Kittredge. Interconnected short stories set in Maine that get to the heart of the characters. (2009)
  • Annie Prouix. The Shipping News. (1994)
  • Toni Morrison. Beloved. (1988)
  • Alice Walker. The Color Purple. (1983)
  • John Cheever. The Stories of John Cheever. (1979)
  • Harper Lee. To Kill a Mockingbird. (1961)
And some of the finalists.
  • Marilynne Robinson. Housekeeping. (1982) Haunting book. Beautiful metaphorical prose.
  • Tim O'Brien. The Things They Carried. (1991) Powerful structure. (Although I have only read excerpts.)
  • Grace Paley. The Collected Stories. (1995) Humorous, strong, and honest.
  • Louise Erdrich. (2009) Beautiful prose, powerful, riveting, brutal when she needs to be.

Friday, December 16, 2011

B. Wurtz: Drawing with Found Materials

Looking at the field of assemblage and collage, we may notice that the art of B. Wurtz stands out in a good way, away from the sepia-inspired tones and into the colorful imagination. In an interview, Wurtz says the pieces he makes (William < Bill < B) feel to him more like drawings. Working primarily with wood, wire, plastic shopping bags, mesh vegetable bags, and a variety of other everyday, yet seemingly invisible objects, Wurtz puts together sculptures and hanging pieces that are humorous and transformative. He also, I think, shows an appreciation for humans as industrial designers, makers of the tin can, the door latch, and the hose nozzle, among others. His content concerns, if we must list them, are: food, clothing, shelter, and beauty.

The body of work looks streamlined, contained, and unified partly because his palette is limited. In this case, his palette holds not specific paint colors, but specific objects. The wood he uses and builds with is mostly clean and new, with a prominent grain. The objects are either new or have been cleaned: the former layers of meaning stripped off. Instead of using the objects to refer to their earlier owners, past lives, or usual uses Wurtz chooses the objects to highlight formal concerns like pattern, color, shape, and texture. It is as if he has taken a microscope to their formal elements. In the interview, he describes a piece he calls "Monument" and his interests in "the grain of the wood, the lines of the can, the pattern on the sock," and, of course, how they look when placed next to one another. In this era where the weathered look is popular, particularly with found objects, Wurtz disregards the pre-patinated surface. It is not the surface treatment but the treatment of the object that interests him. When a flattened plastic bag starts looking like a tank top we are genuinely surprised. (For a bookmaking project we might use materials that blend seamlessly with our concept and project, but that are, at second glance, something quite unexpected. It is interesting to think that our eyes play tricks, that our memory might be wrong.)

The humor shows gently, for example, in a tabletop piece of a wooden base with two upright wires and a translucent white plastic bag suspended between the wires like a beard. Another piece is a hula hoop that appears to be circling around a dowel. The positioning in the gallery is part of a third work: a little green "fence" encircles bright green objects mounted on blocks as well as the brass plate that covers the electrical outlets embedded in the concrete floor. Where the objects are in space and what else is nearby are also important. (In bookmaking we might translate this concept to the layout—the placement of words and images on the page—as well as rhythm and sequence: what came before and what comes after and the relationship between them.)

You can see a tour of a recent exhibition here. In that video, note the child being pushed in a stroller who grins and reaches out for a tree of puffy, plastic bag foliage. The child, who not a sculpture, captures our own feelings about Wurtz's work, those of curiosity and delight in the world around us.

not B. Wurtz: photo of found objects, Berkeley, 2011

Brief bio: He was born in 1948 in Pasadena, CA. He holds an MFA from California Institute of the Arts, 1980. He currently lives in New York City. In 2006, B. Wurtz created a photographic artist book called Blocks, edition of 250.

Monday, December 12, 2011

A Simple Pop-Up Accordion Card

Wandering around the fine arts building at San Francisco State University, I discovered a glass case with previous exhibition catalogues inside. A folded one caught my eye. It was for a 2004 show called "2 1/2: Art at the Corner of Two and Three Dimensions." The concept for the design fit perfectly, the card was simple, yet felt animated. It looked like it would make a nice card for other events as well, although without the terrific conceptual connection. So, let's make one.

Materials: Use a paper that is 8 1/2" x 11" or A4 (either: cut in half, lengthwise). For digital design, plan to print two cards on one piece of cardstock (each approximately 4 1/4" x 11," or 105 mm x 297 mm for A4). Note: Plan your design so you can trim to 3 3/8" x 10." Many printers will not print to the edges and this will ensure the pictures will bleed off the edges: top, bottom, and sides, like the example.
Tools: pencil, bone folder, art knife and metal ruler and cutting mat, academic divider (optional, for creating five equal sections)
Example: The steps shown below create a five-panel card that is 3 3/8" x 2" (79 mm x 51 mm) when all folded up or 3 3/8" x 10" (79 mm x 254 mm) completely open.

Arrange the paper horizontally.

Divide and mark paper into five equal sections along the long side, top and bottom (that will be four marks).

Drawing down with the bone folder against the ruler, press into the paper to make a score that connects each set of top and bottom marks.

Start with a valley fold. Then fold the next section back on itself; continue alternating valleys and mountains along the scores.

Mark and make one horizontal slit (approximately 2" or 50 mm, centered across the fold): one across the first mountain fold (#2 of 5 folds), one across the second valley fold (#3/5). Note: if you change the scale, the slits should be the width of one of the panels.

Mark 1" or 25 mm on either side of the folds and at the edge of the paper. Make two scores with the bone folder, connecting the ends of the cut slit to the marks at the edge of the paper. Repeat for the second cut section.

Fold along the new scores: mountain folds for the first section, valley folds for the second section.
Refold the center of the first section so that where it was once a mountain fold, now it is a valley fold.
Refold the center of the second section so that where it was once a valley fold, now it is a mountain fold.
Fold up the card, slip it into an envelope, put a stamp on it, and mail it.

    Thursday, December 8, 2011

    Meditation on Creativity

    Finding the flow—
    Getting into the groove, the zone—
    that spring of creativity;
    you just have to tap into it.

    Creative sources hide in the body—
    between sleeping and waking,
    self-hypnosis, meditation,
    the eye of the emotional storm.
    How do you get there?

    It is not a forced path, but a focused one.

    From the chair where you sit or the road where you walk:
    Be aware of the edges of your body—
    The distance between the tip of your finger
    and the paper; your shoulder
    and the shoulder of another person in the room—
    The distance between your cheek
    and the light source: the lamp or sun: within or without.

    Feel your edges—
    Listen to your breaths—
    Inhabit your body.

    A pleasant sensation, vibration, a calming warming and cooling, a moving—
    What surfaces? Light it up—
    claim it and carry it—
    Dive down, dive down deeply,
    and let the
    voices / images / notes / colors / words
    roll through you and out
    past the edges
    and beyond.

    Monday, December 5, 2011

    Invisible Art

    I met a student who I would say is happy to be alive; she finds art everywhere: she elevates scuffs and touch-up paint on buildings to drawings, and debris to assemblage. Only slightly am I exaggerating for effect, but the impulse is true. And as artists, I believe we all experience this extraordinary eye, if not constantly, then close enough. Our visions and creations can make us happy, even ecstatic at times.

    What is this impulse? A desire, or perhaps a compulsion to see deeply: not only to see but to perceive and to understand beauty. Someone came into my studio and saw the vinyl tablecloths I use to protect my work surfaces: the cloths are covered with streaks, smears, blotches, and swaths of acrylic ink. "You should cut those up and frame them or use them for book covers!" he said. I shrugged at the time, but I understand what he saw. Because my studio and my ink-covered tablecloths are familiar to me, they are ordinary. But to fresh eyes, they were fresh art.

    This kind of heightened vision comes to light in Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities as a fictional Marco Polo tells a fictional Kublai Khan about his travels to various cities, really all the same, really all Venice. Yet as he describes the city from different angles, dreamlike and fantastic (with allusions to Dante's Inferno), we can't be sure each is not a different city. I think we can apply these ways of living to how we might want to perceive art in daily life.
    There are two ways to escape suffering…The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space (165).
    We want to seek out art and make it endure. On which level, or part of the continuum shall it exist? How shall we spotlight the ordinary and make it extraordinary? Do we just hold it up for show-and-tell or do we transform it? If we transform it, how much work do we do? We can find an object and put it on a pedestal, give it space just as it is, because it delights us. We can put it in a frame or alter it slightly. We can use it alongside other materials and/or completely transform it. The most obvious examples come from found objects: the painted tablecloth may appear beautiful as is. I could cut out a square piece and frame it; here, I have done no real work except metaphorically to shine a light on it. I could use it as a book cover; in this case my work is to choose its new form and perhaps add content. A third layer might involve cutting it into pieces and stitching it together again like a quilt; my work then would involve the light, the choice, the form, and a complete transformation.

    Or we can step back completely and take a photograph. And then the photograph itself becomes the art—the object transient, no longer needed. The picture forever there, to disturb or to delight, making the invisible visible.

    Thursday, December 1, 2011

    An Altered Book: (S)tree(t) of C(roc)od(il)es

    Interestingly, it took a well known fiction writer to get an altered book published and available to a wide audience. Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Everything Is Illuminated, among other works, took an English language copy of the 1934 novel The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz and, as the copyright page notes, "cut into the pages, carving out a new story." The original was Safran Foer's favorite story. The new version is called Tree of Codes.

    My first question was: will it really read like a story, or is this a novelty item? When I picked up the thick paperback book I discovered that it was light, spongy, already a curiosity. Upon opening it I was delighted by the layers of words. Then I began to read, page-by-page. I found repetition of words and some wonderful poetic language left intact, for example, "like the glove from which a hand had been withdrawn" (14). The text in its cutout form tells an abstract story, which is grammatically correct and has complete sentences with "Father" and "Mother" and "I" as the characters. The intrigue lies in the words that float to the surface and play hide and seek with one another. Phrases from below add color, like the past influencing the present. 
    Although Tree of Codes isn't completely satisfying as stand-alone fiction (which it isn't meant to be anyway), it is magical in conjunction with the tactility and playfulness of the reading experience. The book as a whole is satisfying. Now, I would like to read The Street of Crocodiles. I suspect it is magical because of the language.

    Here is what the book and the author look like:

    Here is how the book was made using die-cuts:

    Bruno Schulz was an artist (and art teacher by profession) as well as a writer which may account for the strong imagery in his written work. You can see his artwork here.
    "I was happy," said my father, "to see that unexpected flowering which filled the air with a soft rustle, a gentle murmur, falling like colored confetti through the thin rods of the twigs.
    "I could see the trembling of the air, the fermentation of too rich an atmosphere which provoked that precocious blossoming, luxuriation, and wilting of the fantastic oleanders which had filled the room with a rare, lazy snowstorm of large pink clusters of flowers.
    "Before nightfall," concluded my father, "there was no trace left of that splendid flowering. The whole elusive sight was a fata morgana, an example of the strange make-believe of matter which had created a semblance of life." 
    The Street of Crocodiles (68)
    Tree of Codes (60)

    Tree of Codes is published by Visual Editions, 2010
    "At times I felt that I was making a gravestone rubbing of The Street of Crocodiles, and at times that I was transcribing a dream that The Street of Crocodiles might have had" —Jonathan Safran Foer (139).