Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Peninsular: Almost (Long) Island

I've been reading Sphere for several months. I find it increasingly enjoyable. Actually, given the blog's focus, the environmental and developmental challenges of Long Island Sound and the surrounding region, "enjoyable" isn't always a fitting modifier, even if Tom Andersen's writing is generally excellent.

Most of the Long Island that my father knew as a child in the early 1940s is today gone, replaced by suburban sprawl. As human population increases, so too do the environmental pressures. Consider this laundry list of proposals and other local issues collected over the long weekend by Andersen. He describes proposed private condominium development on land that is presently owned by the state of Connecticut, boaters who are regularly pumping their heads (toilet holds) into the waters of the Sound, health officials closing some shellfish beds due to recent rainwater runoff, and threats of retribution levied (and some actual vandalism) on churches and mayors by anti-hunters intent on halting deer hunting. The only glimmer of hope in this otherwise ugly report is a University of Connecticut study that suggests communities in the region suffer for having too many parking lots, "thus increasing development costs, wasting land, deadening our urban centers, discouraging walking and riding, and adding to the runoff into our streams and rivers." The study itself points to discouraging truths, but perhaps the implicated towns will elect to reverse the trend, dubious though that outcome seems.

Having just returned from the Eastern Shore of Virginia, a peninsula on the brink of "discovery," I can't help but think that Long Island's environmental woes presage a similar future for my childhood home. Route 13 runs the length of "the Shore" and is situated more or less in the center of the narrow peninsula. Naturally, the highway is also the central artery for development. Along this stretch of road - two northbound lanes separated from two southbound lanes by a wide median - shopping centers, fast food joints, and gas stations have long been features. I was excited when the first Pizza Hut opened in Accomack County (in the early 1990s) because I was then naive enough to view the restaurant's arrival as a sign of progress. Fifteen years later, Wal-Mart(1) has proposed a store in the county, wealthy urbanites are prospecting property at outrageous rates, and Route 13 is a mess of billboards and chain stores. In short, "growth" has arrived.

The local reaction to these changes is understandable, but it makes for a troubling dynamic. Long time Shore residents discourage "come heres" - anyone who moves to the Shore from somewhere else - and resent them if they do settle in the area. On the one hand, I think this is as it should be, that locals should be resistant to development of any sort. Boycotting Wal-Mart while simultaneously embracing wealthy "come heres" will still result in a growing demand for amenities and commercial options that the Shore could do without. Transplants from the city want perks like central air, gourmet food stores and restaurants, "authentic" harbors and improved sailboat docks. What they find instead are wood stoves and chimneys, Food Lion and fast food, and working waterman standing on blood stained docks. This isn't exactly the idyllic retreat most urbanites have in mind. It's the rural south.

On the other hand, I sympathize with some of the urbanite wants. I'd love to see an organic food store open on the Shore, for example. Moreover, I accept that, given the world's burgeoning population, development of one kind or another is inevitable. With that in mind, why shouldn't locals fight back the Waltons while inviting the Rockefellers to dinner?

Of course, by courting outside money, the Shore runs the risk of establishing class ghettos and further corroding the already tenuous race relations. The Eastern Shore of Virginia is home to significant African American and Latin American minority populations. As more and more mansions spring up along the waterfront, I've also noticed more decrepit shacks in the fractured villages that line Route 13. Some of these residences are little more than 10' by 10' tarred boxes resting on cinderblocks. On the estates, "come heres" host cocktail parties and laugh about escaping the rat race. In the poverty stricken hovels a mile away, crack abuse is rampant and skinny kids play hoops with bushel baskets nailed to tired looking poles. Whether or not these children are oblivious to their worsening lot, the social dynamic is worrisome.

(1) If you are interested in reading more about WalMart's recent attempts to green their corporate practice, I suggest linking over to this Grist article. As Jeff writes over at Sustainablog, "Wal-Mart's business model makes genuine sustainability (or even a mere imitation of it) a pipe dream..."

Monday, November 28, 2005

Home on the Sho'

Gnarled Loblolly pine at Heron Hope

Shore Snows

We arrived home on Thanksgiving, just after midnight. Outside, the racket surprised me and, at first, I wasn't sure what I was hearing. City living has retarded my ear but, like a foreign language left unspoken for a time, the sounds of rural life are not forgotten and can be quickly relearned.

"Isn't that wonderful to hear?," my father asked as he quietly shut the door of the pickup truck. "There must be over a thousand out there."

I stared into the darkness beyond the reach of the garages light, at last recognizing the sound's source. A hundred yards away, in the estuary alongside Heron Hope, geese were conversing excitedly. These were not Canada geese (Branta canadensis), the species with which I am most familiar, but snow geese (Chen caerulescens). The species' voices are distinct. As I stood in the fall chill, listening to the birds, I smiled involuntarily. It's good to appreciate your mother tongue anew.

The next morning, my father called down to me a little after sunrise. "Look outside, Christopher! Quickly."

Bleary eyed, I rolled off the couch and stumbled onto the porch. Thousands of snow geese traded about over the estuary. Their white bodies reflected the brilliant morning sun so that the sky seemed full of diamonds.

"I'd say there are around three thousand of them," my father yelled from upstairs. "What a flight!"

The birds' chatted, gossiped, and argued as they rose in great swirls, preparing to move to their inland feeding grounds. They would return at sundown, to once again take refuge in the estuary. I watched the spectacle in silence, duly thankful to be home.


Heron Hill

Ned Smith
"Heron Hill Farm, through a Canada goose's eye"
c. 1983
Acrylic on canvas

My parents purchased land on the Eastern Shore of Virginia in 1970, seven years before my delivery in a Washington, D.C., hospital. They paid $25,000 for sixty-seven acres and a farmhouse that dated to around 1770. ($25,000 in 1970 is the equivalent of $125,000 today. Unfortunately, my parents hit a rough spot shortly after making the purchase. For a time, they adapted to food stamps and the lean life.

Because the house was situated on a rise of land - 10 feet above sea level - in an otherwise low-lying region, my father named the farm Heron Hill. Over the next thirty years he would buy adjoining property as it became available, eventually creating a 280 acre contiguous farm, the bulk of which was managed for wildlife and put into conservation easement.

I grew up on Heron Hill. In fact, looking at the Ned Smith painting featured on the dust jacket of The Heron Hill Chronicle, a book my father wrote about his experiences on the farm, viewers might notice my mother and me picking pecans in the front yard (see below). (My father is also depicted, returning from a morning hunt in the marsh.)

As I grew older, I helped my father plant many thousands of trees, build islands, dig ponds, plant crops, and generally shape the ecology of the farm to maximize biodiversity. Given my father's intimate connection to the land, I was surprised when my parents sold the property four years ago. They didn't move far, however, and Heron Hope, a compact, five acre property overlooking a beautiful salt marsh and estuary, is less than a mile from Heron Hill.


Branch abstract at Heron Hope

Hot Tubs and Parking Lots

After a filling Thanksgiving meal, some friends and I made our way to a vacant house that one of my friends was house sitting. We climbed into an outdoor hot tub on the back deck. The air temperature was in the upper 30s, but the bubbling water was over 100 degrees Fahrenheit; the contrast felt great.

Cool steam dampened my face as I stared up at the heavens, admiring constellations and the occasional passing satellite or airplane. I have long used Orion as a locater, because the three stars of his "belt" are so easy to identify. Contemplating the celestial hunter, my thoughts turned to early humans' perception of the night sky. How very natural the early creation myths are! How could one not believe in God (or gods) in 3000 BCE? How very sensible the cosmology of Plato and Aristotle two thousand years later? How attractive Intelligent Design (as a notion, not a reality) today? One sometimes forgets about these questions living in the city. Flora and fauna aside, one of the most noticeable differences between New York City and the Eastern Shore of Virginia is the night sky.

I returned to Earth and joined the hot tub conversation already in progress. A Japanese girl, three weeks into her first ever visit to the United States, asked why so many Americans lived in such big houses. No one had a good answer, but I did point out that I planned to live in a small house when I finally leave New York.

The next day, the girl excitedly photographed some of the guns in my house. Rather sheepishly, I agreed to pose with one of my shotguns; I imagine this picture will prompt laughter back in Japan. What else is to be made of the scary American with the boom stick?


Eastern view from the porch at Heron Hope

Semipalmated Sandpipers

On Saturday morning at low tide, my father and I carried four ducks to the dock for plucking and gutting. As we pulled the feathers from the still warm bodies, a large flock of semipalmated sandpipers (Calidris pusilla) pitched onto an exposed mud flat nearby. Preoccupied with their feeding, they seemed oblivious to our activities. They skittered about, their legs a blur, and stabbed at the mud with their long bills, presumably grabbing invertebrates and other edible material from the flat. In warmer weather, mummichogs (Fundulus heteroclitus) would have nibbled at the duck intestines we dropped into the now narrow stream near the dock, but the cool weather had made these fat little fish inactive. Instead, raccoons and foxes will recycle these guts come sundown.

We carefully removed the duck hearts and placed them on a tray to be cooked that night. As we cleaned up the plucking area and prepared to head indoors, the tide changed and the stream began to expand. The sandpipers rose in unison and moved north a hundred yards to higher ground.


The Big Flight

Snow geese on the estuary at Heron Hope

By Saturday afternoon, I was exhausted. My excessive Thanksgiving eating had taken its toll; I was lazy and groggy. My father headed to the deer stand while I walked around our property, photographing anything that caught my eye. Afterwards, I headed inside and lay down on the porch couch. I belched and felt a little better about life. I'm come to prefer hunger to satiation, and I reminded myself that I should swear off excess, even on holidays.

As I lay there, feeling awful, the sky turned purple and pink. The sun fell behind distant pine stands. Then I heard them. The sound was initially faint, but the volume grew steadily until they were over the house and then everywhere at once. How many thousands, I can not say.

My father, a few miles away in a makeshift tree stand, watched the same flight. He estimated that there were around ten thousand. For the next hour, I lay on the couch and watched the birds pour in, filling the estuary beyond capacity. Packed shoulder to shoulder, the geese hid the water from view. The landscape resembled more a stretch of dirty cotton balls than a small wetland bay.

There were Canadas among the snows, but not many. Apparently, 2005 was a good year for snow goose breeding in the Arctic. Maybe increasing temperatures are adversely affecting their predators? Whatever the cause, the flight was a magical sight. These days we rarely witness such abundance in wildlife populations and, like the vast curtain of stars overhead, a deafening flight of geese can properly humble a human.

Note: The picture above is of a much smaller group of birds in the Heron Hope estuary. In the photograph, there are only about one thousand geese.

Photo credit: all photos, Hungry Hyaena, 2005

Friday, November 18, 2005

Betrayed by Philosophers!

I learned yesterday that Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari are wrong. At least, one of their most often employed "real world" examples of multiplicity (their concept of the Rhizome, or rhizomatic thought) is misleading.

The two philosophers famously claim that a blade of grass grows always from the middle out, and is therefore an embodiment of pluralistic, non-linear thinking. In fact, a blade of grass does not grow in this way. It grows from the base up!

Where the blade attaches to the plant stem, the intercalary meristem resides. (This meristem is distinct from the apical meristem, which is usually found at the tip of a stem or root.) The intercalary meristem generates new cell growth and, by doing so, extends the blade of grass from the bottom up, not from the middle out. Thus, when you cut grass, new growth occurs.

Damn it, Deleuze and Guattari! How many years have I been using this flawed analogy, thinking it was so exact? Well, the more you know...

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Imagined Worlds

Jane Hammond
"My Heavens!"
Twelve-color lithograph with silver mylar and collage on Amate paper
30 x 51 inches

This past Saturday I visited AXA Gallery, a pleasant exhibition space affiliated with AXA Financial, Inc. Judging by the company's profile (they specialize in "wealth management"), one might assume that AXA gallery exhibitions would be dull and uninspired. Not so. "Imagined Worlds: Willful Invention and the Printed Image, 1470 - 2005," a joint venture between AXA and the International Print Center New York, is a treat.

I'm biased, however; a number of adored artists are included in the show's all-star lineup. Among my personal favorites are Jane Hammond, Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, and Hendrick Goltzius, but works by William Blake, Albrecht Durer, and Pieter Van Der Heyden (after Pieter Bruegel the Elder, as most of his prints are) also stand out. (What a thrill for Hammond to be included in this company!)

The press release describes the exhibition as follows:
"Imagined Worlds...comprises fine art prints, books, and maps from many cultures, spanning five hundred years. Included are images of remote places and imaginary realms, real and fictional scientific investigations, and serious and comic inventions. What each work has in common is that it was created from an unknown, partially known, or completely unseen subject. Whether based on direct observation or pure fantasy, these prints illustrate the power of imagination and subjectivity in the creation and interpretation of images."
Fantasy and "imagined worlds" are en vogue in the contemporary art world, particularly among younger, "emerging" artists. Somewhat reluctantly, I include myself in this camp, and the AXA exhibition is a must-see for those of us producing work that deals with invented cosmologies. To elaborate, I've excerpted some of my own thoughts from an older Hungry Hyaena post, "Of Fairy Tales and Flights of Fancy."
"It is with increasing urgency [...] that I view so much contemporary art produced by my contemporaries [...] in their twenties and thirties. An uncredited New Yorker review writer describes this work as, 'gloomy, craft-spun, fairy-tale escapism endemic among young...artists.' A visit to "Greater New York, 2005," a survey of artists living or working in New York City at P.S.1, will illustrate just how prevalent this mode has become. [Much] of the work on display fills the bill, and while the majority of these are paintings or drawings, a number of videos and installations belong to the same impetus. We are a generation uncertain and intimidated. Rather than engage and participate, we have opted to wear the escapist smile, retreating into the worlds of Alice and the Little Prince. Is it enough to express ourselves in this way? Do these cryptic fairy-tales or self-abusive efforts communicate anything more than immediate frustration? After all, it was largely my [childhood] social incompetence which drove me to chase monsters around dark living rooms. How [...] different is this display?"
What distinguishes the work on display in AXA's "Imagined Worlds" from most of the artwork at P.S.1 is the artists' knowledge of history and mythology, which is conspicuous in all included works (with a very few exceptions). For example, the works of Goltzius and Blake are grounded in shared, substantial narratives, even if they interpret the tales differently. Most contemporary fairy-tale artworks, on the other hand, are comprised of disparate, personal symbols; these are carelessly collaged onto a flimsy narrative armature, be it social, political, scientific or religious. iCulture is our zeitgeist and it's unsurprising, then, that young artists elect to celebrate themselves rather than addressing more wide-reaching social narratives. This should give us pause. The armatures need to be reinforced and the classical (maybe "established" is the better word here?) narratives on display at AXA are a terrific inspiration.

Jane Hammond's "My Heavens!" was a pleasant surprise. I was already familiar with Hammond's paintings but I knew little of her ongoing collage series. Those collages that I had seen were not particularly memorable, but after being impressed with "My Heavens!" I did some Googling and discovered a number of beautiful pieces by Ms. Hammond. I am enamored of the system of limitations she has set for herself and I covet many of works in the series.

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, who lived from 1839 - 1892, was one of the last great ukiyo-e printmakers. He is renowned for his weak constitution - he was prone to debilitating depression - and violent imagery as much as he is for his outstanding craft. Contemporary graphic designers (not to mention artists at large) can learn a lot from the Japanese master's command of composition and color.

Though "The Lucky Tea Pot of Morin Temple" was not included in "Imagined Worlds," I showcase it because the principal player is a tanuki, a Japanese character/animal that I find especially curious.

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi
"The Lucky Tea Pot of Morin Temple"

Although Hendrick Goltzius' imagery is not as exciting as that of Hieronymus Bosch or Bruegel the Elder, two of his regional predecessors, his handling is exquisite, particularly in his engravings. His paintings are also impressive, though they are too often dismissed by art historians as second-rate.

I can't recommend the exhibition enough. Go check it out if you can.

Photo credits: "My Heavens!" ripped from Jane Hammond's website; "The Lucky Tea Pot of Morin Temple" ripped from

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Thank G-d for the Dalai Lama

Once in a long while, I describe myself in a way that reveals an aspect of my personality or ideology that I had not before acknowledged. This past Saturday, I explained my fascination with biology (and in a more general sense, all the sciences) to a friend as we viewed the excellent "Imagined Worlds" exhibition, at AXA Gallery (more on this terrific show in an upcoming post).

"If not for the painting monkey on my back," I said. "I'd be very happy to work as a field biologist. I think my love of the sciences is, in large part, rooted in a lack of faith in objective scientific truth." Wait! What? I've never framed the idea in that way, but that's exactly right! My love of science is that of the skeptic; my faith is provisional. How bizarre!?

I'm sometimes mischaracterized, even by friends, as a dogmatic champion of science over all other truths or cosmologies. I believe they label me thus for three reasons.

1) I reject the primitive notions of an interventionist sky-god and deny the singular "truth" claims of any religion.

2) I am particularly excited by evolutionary theory.

3) I am a stickler for taxonomic nomenclature.

If considering only these three qualities, I, too, might assume that we're talking about a hardcore bio geek, an individual unwilling to consider "alternative" explanations or allow magic into his or her world view. But I have other interests that provide me counterpoise. Obviously, the visual arts are very important to me, but theology, philosophy, and ethics are among my favorite subjects.

Stacked on my nightstand this month are the following books: The Larousse Encyclopedia of Myth; Bulfinch's Mythology; John Ruskin's On Art and Life; C.S. Lewis's The Discarded Image, an exploration of medieval cosmological transitions; Ernst Mayr's What Evolution Is; and Frans De Waal's Our Inner Ape. As I see it, these books on mythology, aesthetics, theology, history, and evolutionary inheritance are all intimately related. A back-and-forth reading of such texts allows me to cobble together my own cosmology.

For example, I accept that the fundamental elements produced by the Big Bang were hydrogen and helium, but I also conceive of the two primordial elements as Erebus and Nox, the Greek gods begotten by Father Chaos. When these two gods mated, Nox gave birth to a son named Aether, among other offspring. Aether is the personification of the heavens, of the "upper sky," and is therefore synonymous with the celestial elements that formed in the swirl of early space-time. Similarly, I embrace the mystical Jewish conception of the universe's origins, the creation of "Without End" (Ein Sof) from "Nothing" (Ayin, or the cosmic seed), both states of a piece with G-d's supreme body.

Given my penchant for hybrid science-myth cosmologies, I was pleased to read this short statement by Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th and current Dalai Lama, in The New York Times. I recommend reading the whole piece, but I've included some highlights below.
"If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change. In my view, science and Buddhism share a search for the truth and for understanding reality. By learning from science about aspects of reality where its understanding may be more advanced, I believe that Buddhism enriches its own world view.

[...] While I agree that certain religious concepts conflict with scientific facts and principles, I also feel that people from both worlds can have an intelligent discussion, one that has the power ultimately to generate a deeper understanding of challenges we face together in our interconnected world.

[...] By invoking fundamental ethical principles, I am not advocating a fusion of religious ethics and scientific inquiry. Rather, I am speaking of what I call "secular ethics," which embrace the principles we share as human beings: compassion, tolerance, consideration of others, the responsible use of knowledge and power. These principles transcend the barriers between religious believers and nonbelievers; they belong not to one faith, but to all faiths."
Thank goodness for the Dalai Lama's common sense! How I wish the pious folks in Vatican City would issue a statement such as this. And what of Judaism's Orthodox Union? The conservative Muslim clerics? Where are their voices?

Surprisingly, I see our nation's evangelical Christians offering some signs of hope. Richard Cizik, Vice President of the National Association of Evangelicals, can strive for some forward progress in the grey realm where science and theology overlap, even though groups such as the NAE usually worry me.

Photo credit: ripped from Centre For The Mind website

Monday, November 14, 2005

Sarah Silverman's Racism

Chris Clarke is a writer that I respect a great deal. Clarke's observational skills are keen and his narrative ability is exceptional. Initially, his thoughtful appreciation of natural history attracted me to his blog, but I soon realized that his is a much wider focus.

Last week, however, when he responded angrily to a racist cartoon by John McPherson, I protested. Although I agree with Clarke that the cartoon is profoundly stupid and regressive, I argued that his attack on McPherson's racism is a mugging of the coded human inclination to categorize and label.

The tendency to generalize, fraught with complications though it may be, extends to all realms of human endeavor, be it art criticism with its many "movements," scientific nomenclature (Kings Play Chess On Fragile Glass Stairs), police profiling or political decisions (*cough* Katrina relief efforts; *cough* habeas corpus).

But the comments section of Clarke's post made it clear that we each have different ways of coping with racism. For example, I find comedian Sarah Silverman's propensity to pillory racism by highlighting it's outrageousness very funny, whereas Clarke thinks her routines are racist and "quite offensive."

Because of the varied response to his post about the cartoon, Clarke followed up with remarks that explore the definition of "racism." I detest political correctness as much as I do racism, but Chris's take on the term is insightful. He points out that the definition of "racism" has evolved; whereas it once referred to unrefined prejudice - the categorizations and stereotypes borne of "innocent" ignorance - today it is more clearly equated with immoral or chosen bigotry. Racists aren't, in other words, merely naive.

This lexigraphic shift accounts for much of our liberal handwringing. If we assume that an agreeable definition of "racism" centers on mere prejudice and not on wrongheaded notions of racial or ethnic superiority, then almost everyone can be fairly labelled a racist! Identification and classification are natural inclinations, encoded into our very being. Moreover, these inborn skills helped Homo sapiens sapiens outcompete the Neanderthals and survive the lions, tigers and bears! Effectively, we're naturally racist; this being the case, miscegenation is among the only viable hopes.

John X, the father of one of my best friends growing up, was ostracized by the local community when he impregnated a co-worker. John was a white man, his paramour was a black woman. As much as I'd like to believe that John was despised because of his infidelity (and his familial thoughtlessness) and not because he fathered a mulatto, I know that this was not the case.

I was young when this "scandal" occurred, but I remember well debating the matter with my mom in the pickup truck on the way home from school one afternoon. As we passed John's house, she "explained" that his actions were "wrong because the child will never be accepted in society." She continued, "It's just a terrible mistake to bring a person of mixed heritage into the world." Talk about a text book example of "innocent" prejudice! I shocked her southern-Victorian sensibility by insisting that it was only "wrong" because the rest of us couldn't accept the superficial difference. Make enough "mixed heritage" babies, I insisted, and the problem will no longer exist.

Even so young, I had embraced the "Make me mocha" approach to ending racism. Unfortunately, this blending won't yet happen overnight - thousands of years of racial mixing are necessary - but it will happen. Sadly, humanity, mocha or not, will always find something - religion, hand washing technique, culinary preferences - to fight about.

Chris Clarke has proposed that this December 1st be "Blog Against Racism Day." I'm not sure how many people will participate, but I think it a worthwhile proposal and Hungry Hyaena will definitely jump into the fray. Pass on the word if you're a blogger yourself, whether or not you enjoy Sarah Silverman.

Photo credit:

Friday, November 11, 2005

Photoshop Play

"It appears likely that there are about ten times as many artists in the U.S. today as there were in 1950 while the population of the country as a whole has only doubled. Are Americans five times as talented as they were in 1950? Or does this increase in quantity merely reflect demand, and correspond to a dilution in quality?"
-Piri Halasz, The New York Art World (July/August 2005)
Step #1:
Open Adobe Photoshop and create a new file. (My example below is 120 dpi; 4 x 4 inches.) Insert a few randomly chosen blocks of color. It doesn't matter how you place these blocks or the colors that you choose. You can even use a brightly colored photograph or, better yet, an anime still.

Step #2:
Using the Wave command (found under the Filter/Distort drop-down menu), make the following selections:
Type: Sine
Generators: 6
Wavelength: 230 - 575
Amplitude: 220 - 490
Horiz: 70%
Vert: 30%
Click "OK."

The results will look something like this:

Step #3:
Again use the Wave command, but play with the setting as you see fit this time. Don't be afraid to use the "Randomize" button to preview possible results.

Step #4:
Repeat Step #3 until you are satisfied with what you see on the screen. If you want to add the illusion of depth, you might create more layers, but remember to be careless about any and all editing you do. Just point-and-click until something strikes your fancy.

Before you know it, you will have produced a study for a Shirley Kaneda painting.

Step #5:
Congratulate yourself and then compare your mini masterpiece to an original Shirley Kaneda (see below).

Shirley Kaneda
"Untitled #5"
Mixed media on watercolor paper
16 x 12 inches

Granted, Kaneda's watercolor is more subtly colored and dynamic than my toss-off exercise, but you get the idea. A painting by Shirley Kaneda is, for the most part, produced by using one Photoshop filter repeatedly!

I'm not pulling back any curtains in this post. In her recent artist statements, Kaneda makes clear her indebtedness to Photoshop. She asserts that her work "investigates the relationships between the 'photographic' and the painted or between the unique and the reproducible, as well as how new technologies might be employed to supplement traditional form."

I'm no proponent of modernism, with it's misplaced faith in forward progress, the original or the new, but Kaneda's statement would suggest that her questions are more successfully limned by James Rosenquist and Marcel Duchamp, among many others. By all means, take an existing concept/genre and mine it again, in your own fashion, but please do so thoughtfully. Making a boring, if colorful "drawing" in Photoshop and painting directly from the print? That's a shallow excavation, Ms. Kaneda, and I can't help but think you're capable of better.

Lest readers think I'm being a cranky doctrinaire, slavishly championing handicraft over content and aesthetic delight, I should explain myself. I wince when I spot obvious Photoshop techniques used in contemporary painting because I have relied on some of the same tricks in the past. In graduate school, I produced a number of abstract watercolors and digital prints using exactly the same process Kaneda does. I also created many studies - and a few paintings - that resemble David Salle's new "vortex" series (see image below).

So what's up with established artists turning to Photoshop to generate bad paintings? Young, searching artists commonly experiment with digital filters but they usually outgrow these tools. The filters themselves are created by a team of talented designers, engineers and programmers deserving of kudos, but when abused by painters, the same filters become crutches.

Photo credit: Hungry Hyaena, Feigen Contemporary, Hustler of Culture

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Dreaming of Release

Steve Mumford
"The AK-47 Round, Squad from Bravo Company takes cover during a nighttime patrol after a shot is fired nearby"
Watercolor wash

Last night I dreamt that I was listening to dispatches from Iraq on the radio. By now we're all familiar with such reports: "A car bomb exploded in Fallujah today, killing three marines and injuring twelve civilians." But in my dream, I wasn't painting in my studio or cooking dinner in my kitchen while listening to the unhappy news. I was instead sitting on a second-story porch in Baghdad, with three Iraqis and an American soldier for company. In front of me, on the floor of the porch, rested a helmet. Instead of the standard steel pot, this helmet was formed from frosted glass. Realizing that it belonged to me, I anxiously wondered if all my body armor was equally delicate.

The radio reports of bombings and fire fights ran together endlessly. The Iraqi man to my right whittled at a bit of wood and one of his friends savored tea from a pot that sat on a small stool. From our elevated vantage point, I watched the bustle of Baghdad street life. Over the radio and the murmur of the people below, we could hear the crackle of approaching gun fire.

The dream was soaked in yellows, browns and whites, the muted colors of our western conception of the Middle East. Gradually, this monochromatic scheme clued me in to the unreality of the scene. This, I realized just before I awoke, isn't war. This is only me dreaming of reclaimed immediacy, a longing for direct engagement with my surroundings and the associated stretching of time experienced when the conscious being is forgotten and the animal acts alone.

I believe that the dream was inspired by three things. In the hour before I went to sleep, I admired a photograph of sculptor Joseph Zito's glass helmet in Art in America and, in the same magazine, read artist Dawn DeDeaux's account of her return to New Orleans one month after Hurricane Katrina. DeDeaux writes,
"Katrina is the indifferent manifestation of a weather pattern to be measured in centuries, not seasons. Thinking in such meteorological time, biblical scale and mythic proportion, contemporary art is the smallest speck of time, and I am wiped off the map."
I also spent some time yesterday thinking about my father's struggles with his current book project, an account of his two tours in Vietnam, his wartime work for the RAND corporation, and his experiences as a key translator of Vietnamese at the Paris Peace Talks. My father is the author of over thirty books, the majority of which deal with conservation and natural history. Some of these earlier books were long in coming, but none seemed so difficult as the current one. I'm convinced that the shift in subject matter is responsible.

I've rarely seen my father cry. Excusing tears brought on by the Hollywood dream machine, his recollections of Vietnam are usually responsible. "Over there," he sometimes found himself "in the shit," as Max Fisher would put it. Details are only reluctantly shared, but he saw some terrible things, both "on the ground" and in the control room. I've never pressed him for the whole truth, but I look forward to reading his story when the book is completed.

My father's negative experiences in Vietnam and his relatively leftist political leanings didn't stop him from encouraging me to enter the military, however. When I came of age, I gave the Army some thought - even though my father was a Navy man, I believed that I could more quickly become a trained helicopter pilot by entering the larger force - but ultimately decided service was not for me. I was not adrift; I knew that I wanted to be an artist and so concluded that the military would just delay my vocation. I finished undergraduate schooling never having joined ROTC, and I rarely second guess that decision.

But last night's dream points to an experiential void, one that sometimes haunts me in the city. In the country, at least, time spent outdoors, observing animal behavior and other natural phenomena, sustains my desire for immediacy. Furthermore, hunting, infrequent though the practice has become in my life, confirms that I am still alive, that I am still connected to the animal I murder, butcher and consume. (The move from country to city was added motivation to give up meat and fish - except that for which I am personally responsible.) Here in the city I am coddled, things feel "taken care of" and life becomes routine, punctuated only by late nights of inebriation. Silly errands take on unwarranted import in such a setting. Self importance is the order of the day and any sense of interconnectedness that one has cultivated evaporates, forcing many urbanites to turn to yoga or some other activity that might enable them to reconnect with real time.

I'm grateful that my day job is in a building which overlooks the East River. I can watch the wakes of passing ships slap at the reinforced perimeter of Roosevelt Island, pushing imperceptibly at the foundation, while the herring gulls circle and dip above, their predatory eyes on the look out for some scrap of thoughtlessly discarded food. This scene allows me a glimpse of the time scale that DeDeaux described, what she calls "meteorological time" or "mythic proportion." This moment is connected with the vast expanse.

When young men dream of war, they are entertaining thoughts of self destruction; more precisely, they dream of destroying the ego, wishing for it to be replaced by the group experience, by the animal drive, by the eyes of the hungry herring gull. This same erasure is achieved in times of crisis. That which is not of immediate relevance falls away, and the individual's decisions are dominated by the lower and mid brain, the portion residing at the top of the brain stem (including the amygdala, pons and medulla oblongata).

Recent events along the Gulf Coast of the United States and in Pakistan remind us of this reality. In her essay, "The Uses of Disaster," (published in Harper's Magazine) Rebecca Solnit addresses this precedence.
"This joy - this unspoken and perhaps unspeakable relief in disaster - also hints at an unfamiliar version of human nature...In his 1961 study, 'Disasters and Mental Health: Therapeutic Principles Drawn from Disaster Studies,' sociologist Charles Fritz asks an interesting question: 'Why do large-scale disasters produce such mentally healthy conditions?' One of the answers is that a disaster shakes us loose of ordinary time. 'In everyday life many human problems stem from people's preoccupation with the past and the future, rather than the present,' Fritz wrote. 'Disasters provide a temporary liberation from the worries, inhibitions, and anxieties associated with the past and the future because they force people to concentrate their full attention on immediate moment-to-moment, day-to-day needs.' This shift in awareness, he added, 'speeds the process of decision-making' and 'facilitates the acceptance of change.'"
I need not fight in a war - especially one that I am opposed to - to achieve such a shift in awareness, but living in the city does prioritize ego over the live animal.

I'm happy to be heading home for Thanksgiving this year. I look forward to taking a long walk and to being outside at first and last light.

Photo credit: reproduction of Steve Mumford's artwork ripped from

Friday, November 04, 2005

Waste not, want not

Because work will be extremely crazy through Wednesday of next week, my posting will be less frequent. Hopefully, I'll still manage to get one or two posts up, but there is a chance Hungry Hyaena will be quiet for the duration.

In the meantime, I encourage everyone to join their local FreeCycle group. It's a great way to find things you need (especially if you live in an urban area) and it prevents useful items from winding up in the landfill prematurely, polluting the soil and water supply. I recommend new members select the one-email-a-day notification option; otherwise you might find hundreds of emails crowding your inbox. For more information on this growing movement, read Michelle Nijhuis's "Free-For-All" in the November/December issue of Sierra Magazine.

"Maybe you have a closetful of clothes you rarely wear. Or a garage stuffed with underused sports equipment. Or a garden shed packed with rusting tools. Come on, admit it—it's time to purge. But how do you get rid of unwanted stuff without being wasteful? Thanks to an Internet phenomenon known as the Freecycle Network (, doing so can be easier, and a lot more fun, than you might think. Founder Deron Beal had his brainstorm two years ago while working for a small nonprofit recycling organization in Tucson, Arizona. During his daily pickup rounds, Beal noticed that many businesses were also tossing out office supplies, telephones, even old computers. So he created a simple e-mail subscription list, signed up a few friends and members of other community groups, and posted items to give away—the first listing was for a queen-size bed—while encouraging others to claim anything they could use. By finding willing takers for others' castoffs, Beal hoped to not only help his neighbors but also keep useful items out of landfills. "I thought, 'If I give this a nifty name, it might just take off,'" he remembers."

Americans generate 87 percent more garbage today than in 1975, a growth rate more than twice that of our population. Considering this statistic - and the increasing price of oil and gas - FreeCycle seems not only helpful, but essential.

In other recycling news, please make sure you visit CollectiveGood when it comes time for you to part ways with an old cell phone. This group does a far better job of recycling the unit than, say, the RadioShack recycling program, plus you don't have to deal with uninformed clerks who find the concept of recycling downright peculiar.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Take one down, pass it around...

The New Yorker's recent Art & Architecture issue includes a profile of the artist Rirkrit Tiravanija. In Calvin Tompkins' "Shall We Dance?," the artist comes off as a thoughtful, sensitive man, but I struggle to appreciate Tiravanija's artwork.

Tiravanija rightly champions direct action/interaction as a way of "making a difference" in the world. Most of his work deals with community or shared experience, and performative aspects are simultaneously highlighted and dismissed. While I grasp the conceptual underpinning and moral imperative of his projects, they are almost devoid of aesthetic appeal. More problematically (for a post-aesthetics artist like Tiravanija), judged alongside the heroic efforts of citizen activists or humanitarian lobbyists, his projects are superficial and uninspiring.

Although I run the risk of constructing a straw man by focusing on an artwork some readers will deem uncharacteristic of Tiravanija, I'll highlight an early installation described in the Tompkins' article.
"[Randy] Alexander served Rolling Rock beer at the opening, because he could get it at a discount. 'Rirkrit liked the bottles,' he remembers. 'I stacked them up in their original cartons and we made a piece out of it.' The effect that Rirkrit and his work have on some people is not easily explicable. Gavin Brown, who came in one day, was working then for Lisa Spellman at the increasingly influential 303 Gallery, but he thought of himself as an artist - he had gone to art school in London. Something about the four cases of stacked green bottles pierced his soul. 'It irritated me so much!' he remembers. 'Beer bottles in their cardboard cases, all empty, tops off. It wasn't like a found object - there was so much more to it than that. I could feel this in waves, even though there almost nothing to it. It was an object that seemed to say, 'You don't realize how little everything else matters.' I couldn't get it out of my head.'"
I laughed when I read the above, finding the beer bottle enterprise absurd, s revelation of head-up-ass art world pretensions. To be fair, Tiravanija might have intended to at once skewer the art world's skeptical nature and the art world's credulousness, two seemingly contradictory, but inextricably linked impulses. Many art viewers harbor an unfortunate closed-mindedness that results in their thinking, "Hey, a beer bottle is a beer bottle and art is art," while others are readily willing to accept any work in a gallery as "high art."

But I don't think that way, and I don't believe that most people do. Like the laconic photographer in "American Beauty," I'm often overwhelmed by the mundane (even if plastic bags are now considered terribly passe!). As hackneyed a notion as it may be, it's no less true that the smallest of gestures can offer profound epiphanies; nothing should be easily dismissed.

Reminding myself of this, I try to imagine my own, unbiased reaction to Tiravanija's beer bottle stack. I enter the gallery and stand before the Rolling Rocks "in their cardboard cases, all empty, tops off," and I feel......very little, excepting a formal appreciation (and some fond recollections of college binge drinking). This viewer needs more substance.

alone is never enough to satisfy a hungry mind. Minimalism, the "movement" most art historians consider the very pinnacle of formalism, is associated with transcendence. Consider the accepted criticism on Mark Rothko, for example. Purely aesthetic or formal experience can more easily allow for a turning off of the brain machine, a halting of the buzzing undercurrent. A convincing argument can therefore be made that formalism is pragmatic in the same way that advanced meditation is.

Surely this explains the quiet pleasure I experience when contemplating a good Barnett Newman painting. When conscious consideration is applied to the same Newman, however, I'm no longer wholly satisfied. After all, I can achieve the same sort of bliss, if it's fair to call it that, staring at a tree, an etched subway window or, occasionally, practicing yoga; more importantly, all of these non-art activities are more enjoyable ways for me to "transcend."

Complicating matters further, Tiravanija's beer bottle piece, like all readymades, relies on the context provided by a gallery or museum. Once Duchamp reminded us that "anything" could be art, we, as a culture, should have learned that lesson.

Honest artists will agree that the construction site across the street from the Chelsea warehouse is no less exciting, beautiful or intellectually stimulating than the objects on display inside. The whole world is a web of intricate artworks, from the used urinal to the non-coding protein. Why should Tiravanija's Rolling Rock bottles be more significant, or more beautiful, when stacked in the gallery than they are when stacked in the corner of a frat house? How many Sunday mornings have you spent long minutes watching the play of light off an empty beer bottle on the coffee table, following the refracted beam to the wall, colored now a pale brown, lime green or urine yellow? Tiravanija's bottles don't say, "You don't realize how little everything else matters" any more than do innumerable other objects and moments!

It strikes me as curious that Gavin Brown used the word "irritated" to describe his reaction to the Rolling Rock stack. Have we reached a point where we need to be reminded how to look at things from outside of ourselves, how to exist in the moment, whether via contextualized readymades or horrible natural disasters?

The Rolling Rock bottles are, in the end, impotent; the same can be said of most of Tiravanija's work. His gesture and intent are pure enough, but outside of the insulated - some would say "padded" - walls of the art community, his work communicates little of substance. Tiravanija succeeds, in my mind, only when he removes himself from such a context, as he does in Thailand, by working with the existing, local structures to build better safety nets and generate support for the arts and education. This localized, less celebrated effort is certain to be his legacy.