Friday, December 23, 2005

Happy Birthdays, Happy Holidays and disturbing .gifs!

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Like so many other New Yorkers, I'm heading home to visit the folks for the holidays. I have all of next week off from the day job - a benefit of employment at an academic institution - and will stay in Virginia, sketching, birding, hiking, taking photographs, reading and generally recharging. I doubt I'll be inclined to blog it up via dial-up, but I must admit to some mild anxiety; what about all those posts I'll miss at my regular blogosphere stops?! At the end of the day, though, such concerns are pretty darned silly, if not outright ridiculous, especially when dusk finds you standing alongside a tidal estuary occupied by thousands of snow geese.

On Tuesday night, I'll celebrate my 28th birthday with the 'rents and some family friends, even though the actual anniversary is two days later, on the 29th of December. To tell you the truth, I've never particularly enjoyed birthday parties. Often I don't mention the date, and it passes without anyone, excepting my parents, realizing. If a party is thrown on my behalf, I'd rather have it be the quiet, intimate affair awaiting me in Virginia.

The aversion is defensive I suppose, the result of my birthday falling four days after Christmas and having had little in the way of ritualized observance as a child; I remember receiving extra waffles at breakfast, a few gifts and a birthday cake each year, but only a couple of parties. (One of these parties is pictured in the photograph above. Check out that R2-D2 cake, which pretty much rocks! I can't help but realize I was a somber, pensive bastard even as a kid. Jesus.)

All the same, I have a feeling I'll miss my studio on Thursday morning. What better way to mark another year of life than to brew a strong cup of coffee and sit, both nostalgic and anticipative, surrounded by the work that brings you pain and pleasure in proportionate doses? Talk radio or an album playing softly in the background. A few warm sun spots on the floor, one of these occupied by the fat cat. The back of my wooden studio chair pressing into my skin, against my shoulder blades. The warm Cincinnati Bengals coffee mug propped on my belly. These are a few of my favorite things.

Anyway, I'll leave you all with this fantastic .gif file, by artist Matt Smears. VVOI, over at New Art, turned me on to it. (Unfortunately, it seems to be too small to enjoy here.)
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Happy Holidays to all.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

The American Woodsman

Visit Eye Level to read a short piece about J.J. Audubon and Walton Ford, two of my favorite artists. The post is a nice primer (and provides some worthwhile Ford links), but readers who are especially interested in Audubon should follow the crumb trail to a more substantial article, "Audubon's Birds, Flightless and Soaring," in The Washington Post.

Reviewing "Audubon's Dream Realized: Selections from the Birds of America," an exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, Paul Richard, a Post critic, writes, "Not everyone will love these birds. They look a little stiff, perhaps...And their beadiness of eye is frequently reptilian." Apparently Richard doesn't consider the relationship between birds and reptiles. 150 million years ago the distinction between bird and lizard was considerably less clear cut. Indeed, many physiological similarities remain. Such "gaps" in Richard's knowledge of natural history aside, however, his piece competently describes the curious creation of Audubon's magnum opus, "The Birds of America."

Richard paints a picture of the artist/naturalist as the consummate American businessman. "'It is not the naturalist I wish to please,' [Audubon] wrote in 1826, 'it is the wealthy part of the community.'" Like Benjamin Franklin, Audubon was a savvy socialite who understood the importance of persona. But whereas Franklin used his social proficiency to cast himself as every Frenchman's favorite statesman, Audubon used his abilities to make money. He appealed to his European collector base by playing the role of "noble savage," that most iconic of American archetypes. "In London, Audubon strode into grand drawing rooms with fringes on his buckskins, and bear grease in his hair." The truth is that Audubon was neither frontier woodsman nor drawing room aristocrat; rather, he was a hybrid of the two. When schmoozing in Paris or London, he donned the coon tail cap, but when in the States, he didn't hesitate to play up the "science," such as it was, of his undertaking.

Reading Richard's article this morning, I recalled a conversation I had in a friend's kitchen, over six years ago, not long after I had decided to move to New York City from the Eastern Shore of Virginia. My friend's father suggested I draw attention to my "country boy" upbringing. "You hunt and fish, enjoy working in the field, and don't know a thing about fashion," he observed. "You should take to chewing on a length of straw up there in the city, even insist on wearing around a pair of bib overalls and a camo baseball cap, if need be. Just let 'em know you're country and you'll sell more paintings...give those rich, city folks something to talk about."

I rolled my eyes at the time...but maybe he was on to something?

Image credit: Frederick Cruickshank, circa 1831

Monday, December 19, 2005

Enough Said.

"Last week the psychiatrist asked me if I ever experienced feelings of hopelessness. I told him I was an environmental journalist. He nodded and made a mark on his checklist."

- Chris Clarke, writing at Creek Running North

Friday, December 16, 2005

Good Stuff, ArtForum

Back in August, I complained about the Art World's celebration of superficiality, using the June 2005 issue of ArtForum as evidence.

"As I flip through [the pages], I find myself wondering what the point is, or thinking about just how very irrelevant most of the artwork is alongside the "real" issues of the day. Obviously, artistic likes and dislikes are subjective, but what I deal with now is best described as Art World ennui."

Well, the seasons, they go round and round. December's ArtForum includes excellent articles and features terrific work. Carol Armstrong, Doris Stevens Professor of Women and Gender at Princeton, writes a brilliant review of the "The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult," on display at the Metropolitan Museum earlier this year; Jeffrey Weiss, a curator at the National Gallery, reacts to the traveling exhibition, "Melancholy: Genius and Madness in the West;" Arthur Danto sharply critiques "Uncertain States of America," until recently on view at the Astrup Fearnley Museum in Oslo, Norway. Elsewhere in the magazine, Slavoj Zizek writes "Biopolitics: Between Abu Ghraib and Terri Schiavo," an incisive take on the hypocrisy of the "Culture of Life" and the bizarre ethical loopholes rational humans seek when looking for escape from a moral - I'm gonna use a buzz word! - quagmire. Anyway, my August rant seems to have been answered, as the December lineup addresses "the 'real' issues of the day," and does so intelligently.


Last year at this time I didn't read Art Blogs. I didn't know such things existed and, furthermore, Hungry Hyaena was still a couple months from conception. I was a timid, uninitiated participant in the blogosphere - I found it amusing that my buddy, Recon, of Monkeys For Helping fame, ran a blog of his own - but I did visit several sites that provided a range of content, including art and music news. Last December, most of these sites offered "Best of 2004" lists. Curiously, the writers and editors usually seemed embarrassed by their decision to include such a tally, and invariably poo-pooed the practice in their the list. This self-conscious posturing - "Well, I know a Top Ten list is problematic and reductionist, but, hey, everybody's doing it, right?" - irked me and I'm glad to see less of it this year. Whether this means the writers and editors have succumbed to market forces and "listmania," as calls it, or that they've just realized how whiny they sounded a year ago, I don't know.

Which brings me back to ArtForum's "Best of 2005" issue. Frankly, most of the Top Ten lists were rather boring - not bad, just predictable - but I came across a few items that excited me. I was glad to see Matthew Higgs, curator of White Columns, give Kay Rosen props; she is deserving of more attention. (Folks who know how "traditional" my tastes can be might be surprised by my championing of Rosen's work, but she rocks in her own quiet, thoughtful way.) Thelma Golden's picks were satisfying, though I must admit to some bias; I root for her as an Art World personality, even if I sometimes find her language pretentious.

Most exciting, however, were the two works featured below.

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Guy Ben-ner's Treehouse Kit is one of the most compelling performance works I've seen in years. Despite being set in a contemporary gallery, with the standard-issue white walls and cold stone floor, Ben-ner's interaction with the "tree," an assemblage/sculpture that will have IKEA designers drooling, grants viewers a look into the private world of that much beloved literary figure, the Everyman. Relating everything to the self, as we are apt to do, I immediately recall an old artist statement of mine.

"My own opinions and arguments are flawed, of course. Simply because an ideal is unattainable, however, one need not abandon it. In essence, this is the stuff of art – a flawed platform with no up or down, no east or west, on which to build the self and, in turn, shape objects to explain the proposed self. Art reveals the private obsessions of the psyche and better expresses the individual’s inner fragmentation, a consequence of the ideal being at odds with the real."

And yet, Treehouse Kit doesn't only address philosophical contortion or creative effort. Ben-ner's methodical remodelling and retrofitting call to mind a day in the life of anyone - all the little victories, the failures, the ruminations. Watching the video, I suddenly hear in my mind the wretched theme song from America's Funniest Home Videos: "America, America, this is you!" Ben-ner gives us a more generous, honest rendition, something along the lines of "Humanity, Humanity, this is you!," though it sure-fire sounds better than that. Having familiarized myself with a number of Ben-ner's videos over the course of the past year, I'm sold. If I were to make a Top Ten of '05 list - which I won't 'cuz it's so damned passe - Ben-ner would rank near the top.

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Look at the picture above for a moment. Now tell me some piece of you, no matter how buried under years of theory, rhetoric or disillusionment, doesn't warm up to this work, even if it's a melancholy, nostalgic embrace. I doubt many of you can. I don't have much to say about this piece, a giant stuffed rabbit, made by the artist collective, Gelitin, lying on a hillside in Italy. It's funny, surprising and even magical. A lot of reviewers have called it "smart." I disagree. It doesn't have to be. It just is and, in this case, that's enough. I mean, hey, it's a big fucking pink rabbit on a hill! Sometimes you just have to let your inner kid run and jump and scream "Wheeeeeeeeeee!" The hills are alive with ginormous rabbits.

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Thursday, December 15, 2005

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Still crushed with work, I haven't had time to surf the blogosphere today. I barely had time to address comments made here at HH. Hopefully, something more substantial will appear soon, but here's a silly tidbit to buy me some time.

I received an unusual piece of email *SPAM* this morning. I've presented the "Subject" and text of the email below, almost exactly as it appeared in my Inbox. I have, however, taken some liberties with the line breaks, lending more poetic sensibility - or something like it - to this bit of silliness.

it's a snore on the prosthetic earthworm
maybe reluctant,
birdwatch on oilcloth may erupt
see the boatswain, but southbound
it's a checkout
some towns end and comic be cancelling.

Or maybe not.

Nonsensical ramble, you say? Perhaps, but something about this *SPAM* poem rings true. It's a Jim Morrison/Bob Dylan take on the three-headed pandemic that is our culture of agreeable distraction, apathy and fear.

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Wednesday, December 14, 2005


I don't have time to write much today, but I thought I would provide a few links, all of which merit a looksee. In case you're a reader from a particular camp, though, I've broken these down into three categories:

For the artsy-fartsy readers:

Read the latest Art Fag City post, a review of/reaction to last week's The Believer Event at P.S.1. I disagree with some of AFC's ideas - most vehemently with the notion that "there has never been a time where civilizations wanted to be reminded of their mortality" - but there is a lot of good grist for the mill in the post.

Also, check out Winkleman's post on purity in photography. The subject explodes in several directions, all of interest, in the Comments section. This is yet one more example of a Winkleman post turning into a enjoyable, insightful forum. Good stuff.

For the science mavens:

I highly recommend this post at Vitriolic Monkey. In it, Devo proposes a novel way to integrate Intelligent Design into our high school biology curriculum. His solution is sure to produce a why-didn't-I-think-of-that moment in any self-respecting science nerd.

And for the conservationists and environmentalists:

I encourage readers interested in debating the morality and ethics of hunting to visit Sphere. Tom Andersen writes about the hunting of white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) in Darien, Connecticut. He summarizes the correlative relationship between suburban sprawl and increasing deer populations, the connection of wealth and private landownership, and the often wide gap between sustainable practice and the average hunter's approach. All of this is a few short paragraphs!

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Border (Bio)diversity (of opinion)

The Robert Smithson in me is bemused by international borders, particularly those boundaries that are not physically demarcated, lines that exist only in cartography and our collective political imagination. Last night, I contemplated a striking black-and-white photograph of the Mexico-U.S. border. The image was dominated by a rural "vehicle barrier" fence (similar to the one shown above), far removed from an official border checkpoint or crossing. In the desert of the American Southwest, this fence draws an arbitrary line in wire and steel.

It struck me as an emblem of humanity's absurdly tenuous existence, a reminder that our species is an insignificant mote in an incomprehensibly tremendous weave. As the artist Carl Buell wrote in the comments section of a recent HH post,
"With every change in sea level and shoreline, with the raising or eroding of every mountain range, with every changing weather pattern, life spreads out as it can and comes into contact with new environments, opportunities and hazards...As I get older (than dirt), I find myself starting to think like the hills themselves. Some day after eroding and washing out to sea, I’ll be a hill again."
Indeed, each of us (and, eventually, our species) will be reconstituted, and our arbitrary borders, those lines in the mud of space-time, will be erased. In this respect, the border fence is a healthy reminder of our existential folly, but it also reveals humanity's darker inclinations. We build fences, after all, to divide "us" from "them," the demonized "other."

The photograph that inspired this post was printed in the most recent issue of Wildlands Connection, the Wildlands Project newsletter. It accompanied an article about wildlife bottlenecks at the Mexico-U.S. border. The Wildlands Project's mission is to create vast, uninterrupted linkages, known as wildlife corridors, that will extend from Canada into Mexico (on the Rockies spine) and from Canada into Florida (on the Appalachian spine). The U.S.-Mexico border fence is a major obstacle to the organization's first goal.

Yet physical barricades are but one of the obstacles that ambitious conservationists face. Consider wildlife trade legislation that protects species in one country, but not another, adjacent nation. If strict laws prohibit the trapping or hunting of a species in China, for example, but not in neighboring Mongolia, is the Chinese legislation effectively addressing species welfare (particularly when Chinese citizens are paying top dollar to have the killed contraband imported)? Similar issues haunt conservation efforts the world over.

The humanitarian and social concerns that ethically-minded conservationists must take into account present a more nuanced hurdle. Environmental groups in the European Union are warring with one another about how best to create the legislative and physical infrastructure necessary for sustainable energy development. How can you raise thousands of wind turbines without hindering bird migration, ruining aesthetics, or plopping towers in the backyards of folks too poor and disenfranchised to protest?

If the various interest groups in the EU, one of the most environmentally progressive governing bodies in the world, are at odds, is it realistic to expect conservation to become a truly supra-national affair? After all, the EU's concerns are petty alongside those of the southern hemisphere. Whereas Europe is a sprawl of cultivated landscape relatively lacking in biodiversity, the "Third World" represents the usually disastrous meeting of remarkable biodiversity and an exploding human population. Impressed by our terrible example, the citizens of these nations emulate the unsustainable behavior of the "First World." In order to counter the detrimental environmental effects of Third World industrialization, international legislation will face increasingly substantial challenges. The supra-national bodies can create laws, but can we enforce these laws without wielding the colonial sceptre? More critically, can we conserve biodiversity and healthy ecosystems without subjugating the rights of the humans that call the Third World home?

These questions bring me to "Climate of Fear," a recent book by the eloquent Nigerian poet, essayist and Nobel Laureate, Wole Soyinka. Though Soyinka is writing about humanity's attempt to cope with terrorism, his political thrust is applicable to all realms, and his message is clarion.
"The gray zones of moral definitions where relativity reigns and remote cause are evoked to justify the abhorrent will continue to haunt certain casts of mind. The rest will insist on the primacy of an ethical will, one that dictates that some deeds demand to be judged within an identifiable and shared moral universe, however restricted...The ethical will is the redeeming assertion that, even when all other considerations of social conduct are subjected to the fortuitous, one, an ethical core, remains inviolate."
All of our fences fail. Perhaps we should recognize in that certainty both an entropic truth and an implicit morality. Within the context of this "shared moral universe," we are impelled to remove artificial barriers, whether they are constructed to stem the natural tide of human migrations or to protect us from our enemies. No matter the justification for the boundaries we draw, they are immoral inventions. And man, it is said, is the moral animal.

Photo credit: ripped from Kris Eggle's website

Monday, December 12, 2005


Deborah Simon
"Spotted Hyena" (side view)
Polymer clay, fake fur, paint, wire, and cotton
22” x 30” x 12” inches

This morning, meteorologists made much of New York's "lower than normal December temperatures" for the second consecutive Monday. Personally, I'm lovin' it! In good spirits, then, I thought I would kick off the week by posting a sculpture appropriate to this blog (but not to the cold weather). Read more about the spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta) here and here.

At present, the sculptor, Deborah Simon, is living in Lucknow, India, with her husband Rick Connerney, a Phillips Talbot Fellow with the Institute of Current World Affairs. Rick was sent to Lucknow to study the "influence and impact of religion on Indian life and society."

Before moving to Lucknow from New York City, Deborah had been focusing on painting - I've included a reproduction of one of her paintings below, this one of a common octopus (Octopus vulgaris) - and she credits her present surroundings with a renewed interest in sculpture. She writes, "Sculpture is more prevalent here - from household shrines to temple carving - it is more a part of the average Indian's life than painting."

Deborah Simon
"Common Octopus and Moon Jellyfish"
Watercolor and gold
30 x 18 inches

Image credits: courtesy the artist, Deborah Simon

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Inside Out

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If you're familiar with the contemporary art world, you've heard the term, Outsider Art. Grandma Moses, Henry Darger and Adolf Wolfi all qualify as outsiders because they lack formal training or because they produced their work in isolation from the art community of their day. Wikipedia tells us,
"[Outsiders are] self-taught or naive art makers who were never institutionalized.[1] Typically, those labeled as Outsider Artists have little or no contact with the institutions of the mainstream art world, they often employ unique materials or fabrication techniques; much Outsider Art illustrates extreme mental states, unconventional ideas, or elaborate fantasy worlds."
Given the above interpretation, many grandmothers - not just Moses - can be dubbed Outsider Artists. Their choice of subject matter need not be fantastic. Their professional psychiatric evaluation need not be damning. In fact, as defined above, the term is rather nebulous; we can safely lump together the uncredentialed, the insane, the fey and the fringe.

Some critics argue for a return to a more refined definition, one more closely associated with Adolf Wolfi and Jean Dubuffet, the prominent 20th century artist who championed Art Brut. Dubuffet defined Art Brut as "those [art]works created from solitude and from pure and authentic creative impulses...where the worries of competition, acclaim and social promotion do not interfere." Dubuffet's Art Brut rubric can not then be extended to Grandma Moses, who after being discovered experienced a meteoric rise in the art world. Henry Darger, however, by day steady in his janitorial routine and by night immersed in his violent and voluptuary fairy world, passes muster.

Despite potential confusion, I prefer the more open-ended use of the term, Outsider Artist, because the barrier between Outsider and Insider, if you will, is semi-permeable. In my opinion folk artists, renowned decoy carvers, wildlife artists, Sunday painters and unrecognized "street" artists are all Outsiders. But there is another, less acknowledged class of art world outsider. This caste is part of the art world, but, unwilling to participate in reindeer games, they are the Insider Outsider Artists.

In "Homer's Wars," (The New Yorker, October 31, 2005) Adam Gopnik suggests that Winslow Homer's reputation suffered because the artist "withdrew from the world." In fact, Homer did not flee the world. He only moved to Prout's Neck, Maine, so that he could spend more time outdoors. But by leaving New York City, the artist left art world social circles behind. Elsewhere in the article, Gopnik makes clear this tie between locale and art world relevance. "If [the contemporary art world is] to return [Homer] to the command of American art, it might be as a more urbane and cosmopolitan figure than he is usually allowed to be, an artist first and an American second." In other words, Gopnik feels that it's high time the art world admit Homer into the pantheon of beloved artistic forefathers, the painter's rural transgressions forgiven, his proclivity for "outdoor scenes" overlooked. For most of the nearly one hundred years since his death, Winslow Homer has been an Insider Outsider and now, at last, he is being considered for full-scale embrace.

Lee Bontecou is a similar, but more recent example. After achieving prominence in the 1960s, she moved from New York City to rural Pennsylvania and soon vanished from the art world radar. Until the recent MOMA-QNS retrospective, she was happy in obscurity, teaching and making art away from the noise, the parties and the intrigue.

And so I finally arrive at the inspiration for this post, David Rimanelli's "On The Ground: New York" article in the December 2005 issue of ArtForum. Rimanelli is a gifted writer; I enjoyed reading his thoughts on the New York art world, circa 2005. Unfortunately, the "sceneterism" he celebrates is easy to abhor. Rimanelli identifies Gavin Brown, the now prominent New York dealer, and the gallery scene Brown built, as an impetus for sea change. "[Gavin] Brown, who moved to New York from London in 1988, succeeded in delivering to New York more than another neutral exhibition space; he created a situation that encouraged partying, louche behavior, and fuck-you antics." Rimanelli admits that "much of [the Gavin Brown's Enterprise] scenester mayhem was inescapably juvenile, and you probably met more assholes than charmers," but he still seems enthused, even energized, by the current rebirth of art world sceneterism. He writes, "Live Through This: New York in the Year without doubt my favorite art book of the year...[though] the enterprise inevitably fictionalizes its subjects. That's why the extensive party pics and fucked-upness pics - dirty, sexy, fashionable, stupid, drunk, druggy - serve the overall project as much as the sections devoted to individual artists."

In the past two years, I attended several openings at Rivington Arms, the upstart gallery on the Lower East Side, where, as Rimanelli puts it, "there was no shortage of [Lower East Side] hipster the crowds of would-be beautiful-and-damned kids spilled out of the exceedingly modest space and into the street, leading to frequent visits from the police." Kicking off an evening of excess with an opening can be fun, but these events, like the evenings themselves, blend together; if you've been to twenty LES openings, you've been to them all. Openings are parties for the artists and their friends but, as any art world player will tell you, they are principally opportunities to network. For some artists, however, the social component of an art career is tedious and even painful. After six years of New York thrills, I admire most (and identify with) the artist who tells me she plans to skip out on an opening to get work done in the studio.

Unfortunately, staying close to the studio is not the preferred way to make it in the art world today. You're as likely to be "discovered" ripping rails off the shirtless bodies of passed out mates in LES bathrooms as you are via shows and word of mouth. Again turning to Rimanelli, "Deitch Projects, on Grand Street in SoHo, remains the grandest thoroughfare for the transmission of young scenesterism to collectors, curators, and museums...Deitch's critics usually suggest that he is the avatar of the vampire-dealer leeching the energies of young, untried, even unworthy artists and repackaging them as chattels for the demon market." I don't know Jeffrey Deitch. I doubt I'd even recognize him. I've had my arm throttled by excited friends as they whisper-shout into my ear, "Oh, there's Deitch! Jeffrey Deitch is just behind you!," but who gives a shit, really? In those situations it's all I can do to focus on my beer and breathe through any emerging social anxiety. I don't know enough about the man to agree or disagree with the critical characterization of Deitch that Rimanelli describes, but the "demon market," attended by myriad pressures, is very real.

Several artist-teachers in graduate school told me that I'm the sort of artist who "makes it" - if ever; better knock on wood, here - only after the bottom of the art market falls out, when the scenesters have returned to 9-to-5 jobs and the fashion magazines cease featuring young painters in designer labels. Perhaps they are right. Perhaps the financial excess of the moment - at least in the art world - led to our consumptive, fuck-all posturing. Perhaps the slow-burn artists will reappear after the art world stops flocking south to Miami or north to Skowhegan for sex, drugs, good gossip and cash money. But I doubt it. After all, "making it" is forever a combination of talent, luck and working it (or good connections). This recipe remains constant, true even in the financially lean times or those oft-cited "good ol' days." Furthermore, contrary to so much popular opinion, the slow-burn artists are with us today; some of them are cleverly disguised as scenesters, perhaps, but they are there.

Until you actually start down the road to art world embrace, then, you remain an Insider Outsider, no matter the parties you go to or the company you keep. Honestly, I don't consider it an altogether unattractive position. Then again, we all want to make a living at what we enjoy - or what we've been burdened with - so the desire of the Insider Outsider to be an Insider can work against her desire to remain self sufficient, unencumbered by the latest art world bullshit. After all, too much jockeying for position, as opposed to art making, can turn everything inside out.

Photo credit: photograph by Dash Snow, represented by Rivington Arms

[1] Given that we also associate mental instability with the term institution, I find it amusing that Outsider Artists are those "who were never institutionalized," particularly because those of us who have survived educational institutions can make a convincing argument that it is itself damning. Frances Stark's description of the graduate school situation in Los Angeles is exemplary. "We have no fewer than nine art schools in the region with competitive MFA programs, meaning that every year an average of about 180 (mostly) young artists complete their studies. So every two years LA churns out 360 degreed individuals - and that makes for a massive circle. That vastness doesn't even account for the city's cadre of legendary artist-teachers, who are in the business of exhaling those circles like so many dissipating smoke rings...Who can deny that fits of nostalgia occasionally prompt us to long for smaller circles, for times when connecting and creating ties was somehow more organic?"

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Banging My Head Against The Wall

This Sphere post provides yet another example of animal rights proponents getting their science wrong and, in doing so, giving their legitimate concerns a bad name.

Monk parakeets (Myiopsitta monachus) are not native to Long Island and, though I have some reservations about our war on alien/introduced animal species, any respectable wildlife biologist will tell you that the birds represent a threat to Long Island's biodiversity. Apparently, Friends of Animals doesn't care about the other species that may be adversely affected.

But even if you excuse the wrong-headed scientific stance of the group, their leader's absurd claim of "victory" is a classic example of dumb-dumb under-achievement.

Just click on over to be baffled.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

The Plant Whisperer

In high school, I enjoyed reading William Faulkner's meandering sentences. I often contrasted Faulkner's verbosity with Ernest Hemingway's short, punctuated descriptions. Despite their dramatic stylistic differences, both writers excel as story tellers, but it was the writing itself, the technique, that made or broke a piece.

These days, though I'm more inclined to read non-fiction, I struggle through poorly crafted work, no matter how excellent the narrative or the conceit. I'm a pretentious reader, I suppose. Fortunately, there are many contemporary essayists who excel at their craft. The prose of Edward Hoagland and William Gass, to offer two notable examples, is often so compelling that I am moved to read it aloud.

Superior writing should not remain on the page; it must be released, through annunciation. This is most often true of poetry. Designed for the ear as much as the mind, the best verse floats somewhere between abstract instrumentation and lucid communication.

I was therefore delighted to stumble upon William Gass's essay "The Sentence Seeks Its Form: What Can We Do To Find Out How Writing Is Written?" in the most recent issue of BookForum. Gass's best passages make me purr with satisfaction or, less happily, make me aware of my relative failings as a writer. Consider the following selection.
"When we breathe, we take in the oxygen we need to live, but we also acquire at the same time the air necessary to form words, and these are sent forth, when we exhale, in the same way that the lion growls or the hyena chortles. Breath (pneuma) has always been seen as a sign of life and was once identified with the soul. Don't fall for phrases like 'gut feeling' or 'coming from the heart.' Language is born in the lungs and is shaped by the lips, palate, teeth, and tongue out of spent breath - that is, from carbon dioxide. That is why plants like being spoken to. Language is speech before it is anything. It is born of babble and shaped by imitating other sounds. It therefore must be listened to while it is being written."
A friend once told me that he sometimes became sexually aroused when reading good literature. At the time, I laughed off this idea; I was convinced that he was exaggerating. Years later, I'm not so sure. Though my literary pleasures are never sexual, they remain a form of intense arousal, a brief euphoria that can be cultivated and revisited. As Gass puts it, "That is why plants like being spoken to. Language is speech before it is anything."

Photo credit: ripped from the Access Excellence Health website

Monday, December 05, 2005

A Cup Of Joe

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I'd grown accustomed to waking early on Saturday and Sunday mornings, going for a run, and then heading to the neighborhood Dunkin' Donuts for a medium vanilla hazelnut coffee, black. It was an essential part of my pre-studio ritual and, as Jake Berthot told me in graduate school, "without ritual, [artmaking] is only prayer." The Dunkin' Donuts ritual, though, will have to be replaced with another: brewing coffee at home.

In my continuing quest to mitigate negative environmental impact - thus, my shift to an unusual brand of hunter-gatherer vegetarianism, "green" household products, renewable energy credits and organic foods - I am now forced to swear off the double D, not only because they don't offer shade-grown, organic coffee, but also because the chain refuses to adopt paper cups. Instead, Dunkin' Donuts insists on sticking with cups of the Styrofoam variety, serving 2.7 million of these non-biodegradable vessels a day.

Of course, it's best to avoid disposable cups altogether. Using ceramic or reusable plastic mugs is not only environmentally friendly, but potentially cheaper. Some chains, Starbucks included, offer discounts to customers who carry their own beverage container.

If you're shrugging and thinking, "Come on, this is more granola than using canvas sacks at the grocery store," keep the following statement from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in mind. "Even 500 years from now, the foam coffee cup you used this morning will be sitting in a landfill." That just ain't cool.

Photo credit: "Mobil Dunkin' Donuts," Oil on canvas, 2002, by Bruce Mitchell

Friday, December 02, 2005

Pressing the Winter Flesh

Despite the holiday marketing craze, December is one of my favorite months. I'm always impressed by the surge of positive creative energy that December provides and the cold, but not yet frigid, weather appeals to my constitution. Last year a friend told me that I look healthier in the winter, though she wondered if the improvement might not simply be the result of a superior winter wardrobe. Whatever the case, I assume that my irrational relish for the month is fundamentally narcissistic; I was born on December 29th, another melancholic Capricorn who enjoys snow, cold weather, quiet nights in the studio, and contrary stances.

But December has also become a big month in the art world. ArtForum publishes its "Best of" issue, a coffee table essential for art-friendly urbanites, and during the first week of the month "everybody who is somebody" in the art world flies south for a winter weekend in Miami, Florida. Art Basel Miami Beach draws dealers, collectors, curators, and artists alike. All of these art world castes converge for some scenesterism, and for plenty of wheeling and dealing. Already considered one of the biggest, most important art events in North America - this despite a four year history - ABMB turns Miami into a center (if not the center) of art world commerce and consideration for one week each year.

Around ABMB, a number of smaller events/fairs have sprung up, most notably Aqua Art Miami, ScopeMiami, PULSE Miami, and the NADA Art Fair Miami. A quick survey of these names - Aqua, Scope, PULSE - and you might mistakingly assume that Miami's big art weekend is actually a gay Bacchanalia or a rave festival. Though it's neither of these, it is an orgy of consumerism and networking.

I'm one of a few artists that I know who isn't in Miami right now. Even though I received a couple of calls earlier this week, invitations to join artist friends in their trek to South Beach, I opted to stay put. I won't make any long-winded, pathetic excuses for not going. I'll just chalk my decision up to my preference for cold weather. It's too damned warm in south Florida! (Seriously, From the Floor is clear on why he elected to stay away, and suffice to say that if I can figure out a way to make a living as a working artist without ever having to go to this sort of event, I'll be a happy, happy man.)

I do feel, however, that I should keep my eye on the orgy, so I've been turning to more knowledgeable sources for information and reports. If you want to learn more about the parties, the celebrity sightings, the crowds, the money changing, and the ins-and-outs of trying to maintain your gallery mission while hiking up your thong and working it, I recommend the following blogs, all of which are covering Miami (a couple of which are good to excellent art blogs, no matter the season): Modern Art Obsession, Edward Winkleman, MetroBlogging Miami, MAeX ArtBlog, The Next Few Hours.

Photo credit: "Art Basel From Above," photograph drawn from SeanBonner's Photostream, via MetroBlogging Miami

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Blog Against Racism Day

Racial prejudice is an unfortunate reality. Fortunately, like the action of a river on course stone, fair-minded people can wear down and smooth away racist inclinations. But doing so is no mean task. Catchy slogans - I'm reminded of t-shirts that demand, "ERASE HATE!," a command that does little to assuage tension - and awareness campaigns are not enough. Humans are programmed to classify; we segregate our world into a hierarchy of Us and Them. To "Beat Racism" we must overcome a genetic predisposition, thoughtless and unimaginative though it may be, and, as I see it, this can happen in two ways.

The long term solution relies on multi-generational, social evolution, the "wearing down" I already mentioned. Alternatively, increased "interbreeding," or miscegenation, offers some hope. But what of the middle path, the one we will likely walk? And what exactly does "racist" mean in an increasingly plural world? These questions (coupled with my interest in wildlife) led me to the topic of my B.A.R.D. post.

I am a member of many environmental groups, some large (The Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council) and others small (The Greater Yellowstone Coalition, American Wildlands, The Wildlands Project). All of these groups rely on and trust in the veracity of wildlife biologists. But because taxonomy, the classification of species, is a hotly debated subject, uncertainty creeps into the equation whenever environmental groups rally to protect a frog, duck or bear that is closely related to a healthy population. Personally, I enjoy the ever increasing complexity of phylogenetic trees, but the furor surrounding such issues can lead to practical disaster.

For example, in the Fall 2005 issue of "On The Wild Side," the quarterly publication of American Wildlands, Lauren Oechsli (AW's GIS Water Specialist) writes the following.
"Two hundred years after Lewis and Clark first encountered the species in Montana, genetically pure westslope cutthroat trout inhabit only 2 to 4 percent of their historic range in the U.S. Northern Rockies. In May 2005, American Wildlands and its conservation partners filed its fourth lawsuit against the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS), seeking protection for the westslope cutthroat under the Endangered Species Act.

The FWS contends that the westslope cutthroat is widely distributed and does not warrant listing as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. Included in the assessment were all westslope cutthroat populations that were at least 80 percent genetically pure despite crossbreeding with other trout species. American Wildlands contends that a westslope cutthroat trout is only a westslope cutthroat when it is genetically pure, not hybridized with rainbow trout, Yellowstone cutthroat trout or any other trout subspecies."
Understandably, readers unfamiliar with the language of wildlife biology may be surprised by the xenophobic slant of the excerpt. The championing of genetic purity runs counter to things educated liberals hold dear. Unfortunately, such a black-and-white response - "Me moral, xenophobic biologist bad." - is inappropriate.

To address the issue more completely, one needs to understand the current divide within taxonomy. The established system of classification, called the biological species concept (BSC), distinguishes species by their ability, or inability, to breed. As a result, a mute swan (Cygnus olor) is distinct from the tundra swan (Cygnus columbianus), despite their belonging to the same genus, Cygnus. A rottweiler, on the other hand, belongs to the same species as the chihuahua, both Canis familiaris. A coupling of these two dog breeds might be awkward, but it will usually be successful. The BSC is widely accepted.

The new kid on the block, the phylogenetic species construct (PSC), has fewer cheerleaders, but is rapidly growing in popularity and application. The PSC classifies species not based on reproductive compatibility, but on distinct physical or genetic characteristics. According to the PSC, the mallard duck (Anas platyrhynchos) and the American black duck (Anas rubripes) are distinct species, even though they regularly interbreed. Furthermore, by PSc standards, their offspring, the mottled duck (Anas fulvigula), represents another species; I've read several papers suggesting the mottled duck should be further subdivided based on genetic and regional variation.

I believe that, in time, the PSC will replace the BSC as the dominant taxonomic system, resulting in innumerable battles between environmentalists and developers, corporations and property owners. Some biologists fear that taxonomy will ultimately become the enemy of conservation, particularly because, as a group of distinguished biologists wrote in their paper, "The Impact of Species Concept on Biodiversity Studies," the PSC is "subjective and possibly inconsistent." (Relativism may be the essential ingredient in postmodern thought, but there is little room for it in scientific methodology.) Moreover, there are worries that the PSC will simply lead to too much diversity.
"The increasing use of the PSC could thus lead to an apparent increase in extant species numbers, producing 'new' groups with more restricted geographic ranges and decreased abundance....[Therefore,] reclassification under the PSC will lead to an apparent rise in the number of endangered species. This is due not only to the detection of 'new' species but also to an increase in the proportion that are endangered due to a reduction in the distributional area of the inferred species range."
But what about the more wide-ranging implications of the PSC? If we're ready to apply it to every other species, shouldn't we turn the lenses round? By PSC standards, humans and domestic dogs would be further divided. Just as the westslope cutthroat trout (Oncorhynchus clarki lewisi) is separated from the coastal cutthroat trout (Oncorhynchus clarki clarkii), so too would I be deemed a species distinct from Allen Iverson. More dramatically, I would likely be classified apart from a contemporary Spaniard; we are both Caucasian, but there exists sufficient genetic (and perhaps physiological) difference for us to be divided. At the very least, I would be considered a different subspecies.

Clearly, such distinctions conflict with politically correct perspectives. Where morality meets science, it is important to consult philosophy and ethics. I've addressed similar issues before, so I won't waste space reiterating my concerns, but Timothy Burke's thoughts on alien/invasive species are equally applicable to the recent taxonomic shifts.
"...its rhetoric and tropes sometimes seem uncannily familiar, reminding me very much of ideas about race, miscegenation and nativism in modern colonialism, in post-colonial nationalism, and in identity politics. There’s some similar desire to stop the forward motion of change, to fix environments (human or natural) in their tracks, the same suspicion of dynamism."
Evolution is a remarkable process. Species change and mix in unexpected ways; flora and fauna are breathing as one, forever reinventing themselves as do the cells of our bodies. My appreciation of contemporary taxonomic craziness is linked to my faith in dynamism and my tolerance for uncertainty. For me, the arguments of waterfowl biologists regarding the relationship of mallards, black ducks and mottled ducks are as volatile as those about the relationship of African American, Native American, and Asian American. BSC simplification gives us one species of duck, one species of human, and one species of dog. Distinction via the PSC would lead to three (or more) species of duck and many species and sub species, maybe hundreds, of humans and dogs.

As I see it, all this confusion proves racial prejudice absurd. Sure, we're all different on some level. Some racial stereotypes are based in fact. It's true that, for example, that white men can't jump (relative to their black counterparts); African Americans and Caucasian Americans have significantly different physiologies, particularly noticeable when comparing bone and muscle structure in the leg.

I see no reason why we can't acknowledge these differences as phylogenetic moments, individual points on the infinite time line. These points are erased when one pans out from the present, electing instead to survey the mess at the geologic or universal level. At such a distance, distinctions between black and white or red and yellow become irrelevant. Even the separation between dog and cat appear insignificant. The whole universe just breathes.

Photo credit: Mottled duck image,