Thursday, May 29, 2008

Paul Chan : Smart/Dumb

"I think that art can be any number of things at once, and they can all be contradictory."
-Paul Chan

Veteran New Yorker contributor Calvin Tomkins profiles Paul Chan in the May 26, 2008, issue of the magazine ("Shadow Player"). I haven't always gravitated toward Chan's work, but some of his productions, including a recent project on display at The New Museum, are exceptionally rewarding.

Whatever your opinion of Chan's art, I recommend the article (which, unfortunately, is not available online).

I chuckled as I read about Amy Sillman's admonishment of Chan, when he was studying with her at Bard's M.F.A. program. Sillman told him, "Paul, it's clear that you're very bright, but dumb people make great work, too."

Sillman's statement riffs on a theme I heard several times in my own M.F.A. experience, though I was more often critiqued from the other side of that smart/dumb divide. Jackie Windsor, genuinely baffled, once asked me how it is possible that "such a smart person can make such stupid art."

As someone who feels, like Chan, that art can be many things, and can be interpreted or absorbed in many ways, I take Jackie's question to be a compliment.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008


Michael McDevitt and Boyce Cummings both forwarded this brilliant video to me.

Michael described BLU, the Italian artist responsible for the film, as "a perfect example of a true graffiti artist... not a tagger or vandal, but an artist whose medium is paint on buildings. It's like William Kentridge rolled up a big joint of Bansky and smoked it while he worked." Indeed, and the joint was sprinkled with some of Keith Haring's sympathetic sensibility, too.

BLU's resulting film, "MUTO," is wonderfully surreal. Watching it, I consider time (with regard to the artist's process, and to the temporality of art, architecture and our species), scale and even magic.

"MUTO" is also uplifting; after a viewing, I feel good about urban living, and about the balance of humanity's prospects with all of our serious shortcomings. It ends, as all things must, in death...but there is joy even in that.

Were Voyager 1 launched today, I'd petition for the inclusion of the video.

(Personally, I prefer to watch "MUTO" without sound.)

Watch it here. Check out more work by BLU here. Read BLU's blog here.

Photo credit: image ripped from BLU's website

Friday, May 16, 2008

Slash -- Alois Kronschlaeger

Earlier this year, I wrote the first section of a two-part profile of Austrian-born artist Alois Kronschlaeger. The piece appears in the Spring 2008 issue of Slash: A Quarterly for the Extra Observant. Architect and writer Matthias Neumann contributed the profile's second part.

I'm biased, of course, but it's worth a read, as is the rest of the issue. Available online and at newsstands, Slash is a handsomely designed magazine, and this issue features interviews with and profiles of Lewis Lapham, Neil Labute and other notable, creative folks.

Also, check out Alois Kronschlaeger's website and new blog.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Rite: Remixed

"between meaning and material (h.H.R.)," a painting I completed in 2007, has been selected and "remixed," appropriately enough, for the Metropolis Ensemble's upcoming performance of The Rite: Remixed, a reconceptualization of Igor Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring."

The Metropolis Ensemble considers Stravinsky's work "through the lens of the latest sounds and technology from electronica. Combined with the acoustic forces of a huge percussion and brass ensemble, two keyboards, two laptops, and electric bass, The Rite: Remixed will fuse a futuristic, rhythm-inspired sonic tableaux with a hyper-kinetic visual show."

On July 18, 2008, the Ensemble will perform the work in front of an expected audience of 10,000 at the Prospect Park Bandshell, as part of the Wordless Music Series and Celebrate Brooklyn. The popular noise rock act, Deerhoof, will follow.

Event details here.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Shrieking Animal Sounds

"It reminds me of a story told about the great soprano sax player Sidney Bechet, who lived in Paris in the 1950s. He would practice scales and arpeggios for hours every day, but at the end of his sessions he would pause, and then launch into wild, shrieking animal sounds for the final minutes. A neighbor once asked him about this and Bechet responded, 'Sometimes I think what we call music is not the real music.'"
-David Rothenberg, "Serenading Belugas in the White Sea," Orion, January/February 2008

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Tagged, dammit!

Red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis)

I'm not fond of blog tags but, when tagged by a friend, I usually respond.

Tracey St. Peter, artist and The Hundred Dresses Project blogger, hit me up for this random game.

The Rules are simple:
1. pick up the nearest book
2. turn to page 123.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the next three sentences
5. Tag five people and acknowledge who tagged you.

I received her email notification while working at the day gig. The picture window in my office looks east from Manhattan, over the East River, to Roosevelt Island and Queens. On slow days, I sneak in some casual birdwatching and, in case an unusual or unfamiliar species should make an appearance, I keep a copy of The Sibley Guide to Birds handy. Page 123 is within the Buteos section, and details Red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) variants.

"[The Eastern red-tailed hawk is] slightly shorter-winged than Western; white throat, well-defined belly-band and whitish breast. Populations in Florida and eastern Canada show characteristics of Western. [Krider's red-tailed hawk is a] scarce, pale Prairie variant [that] is always outnumbered by normal light-morph birds."

Cheers, Tracey...but I'm not game enough to pass this one on.

Photo credit: image ripped from Zevotron's photostream

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

A Trip West


Puget Sound (with Olympic Mountains beyond); Washington

As admirable a city as Seattle is, I am most charmed by the region's topography and ecology. From the sea stacks and eroding bluffs of the Pacific coast to the alpine forests and lakes of the Olympic and Cascade ranges, this corner of the country is an aesthetic and geologic marvel.

Hurricane Ridge; Olympic Range, Olympic Peninsula, Washington

Jocelyn explained that the tectonics of the area are among the most complex and dynamic on Earth, a result of three-way action by the North American, Pacific and Juan de Fuca plates. The Olympic range, for example, tops out at approximately 8,000 feet, a relatively low elevation when compared to the mighty Cascades, just 90 miles to the east. This is because the Olympics are what geologists term an accretionary wedge, a section of the ocean floor pushed to the surface as one plate - in this case, the Juan de Fuca - is subducted under another - here, the North American continent. By contrast, the Cascades, like most mountain ranges, are the product of volcanism, and the elevation of Mount Ranier is almost twice that of any Olympic cousin.

Were I more geologically inclined, I'd dig deeper, but I nearly failed the "Rocks for Jocks" course I took in undergrad, and my enthusiasm for the field is superficial, though genuine.

Highway 101; Olympic Peninsula, Washington

On my third day in Washington, Michael and I ferried across Puget Sound, picked up Highway 101 and drove around the top of the Olympic Peninsula to the western, rainy side of the mountains, where I was reacquainted with the peninsula's stunning beaches and the marvelous Hoh Rainforest. On the way, we drove through the town of Sequim (pronouced "squim"), where my paternal grandmother is buried, and passed not far south of Neah Bay, where, twenty years ago, my father and I boarded a head boat to catch my first Pacific halibut (Hippoglossus stenolepis).

About halfway between Sequim and the Highway 112 junction for Neah Bay, 101 jags south to trace the shore of Lake Crescent. Like many glacial lakes, Crescent glows turquoise, as though dyed. Fine sediment, or rock flour, generated by glacial erosion and carried to the lake by meltwater streams, is responsible for the striking coloration. Now suspended in the water, these particles absorb all light wavelengths except blue. Unlike most of its glacial relatives, however, Crescent's water is exceptionally clear. (This trait is attributable to its low nitrogen levels, which prevent or discourage algae growth.)

Lake Crescent; Olympic Peninsula, Washington

A shadow-green wall of Douglas firs (Pseudotsuga menziesii), western hemlocks (Tsuga heterophylla), western red cedars (Thuja plicata), and whitebark pines (Pinus albicaulis) rises abrupt from Lake Crescent's waterline and from 101's shoulder. The Olympic Peninsula is home to one of the largest areas of intact old-growth forest in the United States. Much of the territory is heavily logged, however, and 101's scenic drive offers as many scarred landscapes as it does breath-taking vistas.

My choice of words, though, reveals a liberal, urban bias. The work of loggers, after all, is itself "breath-taking." Certainly, it was more heroic when a team of men and oxen felled and transported a Titan of the forest using only axes, two-man saws, falling wedges and greased skids, but giant tree harvest remains impressive in our mechanized age, and the inhabitants of Forks, Washington, are proud of their historic livelihood. Indeed, the town's nickname is "Logging Capital of the World."

Forks, Washington sign

Although timber extraction on the peninsula didn't begin in earnest until the mid- to late 1800s, it was then the principal economic impetus and it remained so throughout the 20th century. Today, however, Forks residents are forced into defensive postures as their way of life is condemned by progressive politics and federal regulation (even if population growth and rampant consumerism ensure that the timber industry will remain active for some time to come). As with most issues of environmental sustainability, an objective, thoughtful consideration of timber harvesting should generate nuanced discussion - for example, short-rotation forestry and windrowing are undeniably destructive practices, but not all harvesting measures are ecologically unsound - but the passionate parties on either side of the picket line prefer to simplify and shout.

Clear cut area off Route 101; Olympic Peninsula, Washington

In the early 1990s, this shouting reached a fever pitch when the Northern spotted owl (Strix occidentalis caurina), a species in decline and dependent on old-growth forest for its habitat, became nationally famous (or infamous, depending on your perspective). The polarizing emblem of a conservation crusade, the owl was, for a time, a victim of its unsolicited celebrity. Although automation of the timber industry, and not any bird species, led to a sharp decline in jobs, Forks loggers (and those sympathetic to their cause) nailed owls to the doors of local environmentalists and displayed bumper stickers reading "Kill a Spotted Owl - Save a Logger" or "Are You an Environmentalist or Do You Work for a Living?" Predictably, the logging camp pointed accusatory fingers at Seattle's condo-enviro types, and the rural-urban cultural rift widened. Almost twenty years later, this animus remains and Forks, a blue state town on the bluer coast, is decidedly red.

This narrative is familiar to the coal miners of rural West Virginia and Kentucky. Like the northwestern loggers, they fight to protect their jobs amidst increased scrutiny and the condemnation of their employers' methods. In 2005, Erik Reece, a contributing editor to Harper's Magazine, wrote "Death of a Mountain," an essay about the desperate, ugly war of words and litigation in that region. Reece recounted the bitter minutes of a public hearing held at the Hal Rogers Center, in Hazard, Kentucky. "The wife of a miner pleaded for her husband's job, then asked, 'What use are the mountains to us other than coal?'" A elderly miner "hinted at the conspiracy afoot by the rest of the state to keep eastern Kentucky poor. He wanted the federal government and the Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency to leave this region and its people alone to mine as they saw fit."

Although I cringe when I read such sentiments, it's understandable that miners and loggers feel this way. The suburban or urban environmentalist does little to endear himself to those rural residents, farmers included, who work with natural resources. In his book, "Heron Hill Chronicle," my father writes of the intellectual divide between rural conservationists and urban preservationists.

"Sadly, in drawing up their list of enemies, preservationists have alienated most of their strongest potential allies: people who also care about endangered species and rain forests but who understand that perpetuating nature is - first and foremost - hard physical labor far removed from the feel-good realm of petition signing....Real conservation is about planting filter strips along erodible stream margins and riprapping the banks to prevent swollen currents from undercutting them. It's not about save-the-whale rallies. Real conservation is about constructing and annually maintaining waterfowl nesting boxes. It's not about sending money to organizations that make the impossible promise to restore all the waterfowl populations of North America. Real conservation is hands-on, net-gain, local habitat manipulation and species management. It's not about letting nature take its course."

As unattractive as his position is to both the urban environmentalist and the rural logger (who rarely, if ever, thinks about installing nesting boxes or riprapping stream banks), it is a realist's perspective. Man is part of nature; we can not extract ourselves, no matter how stubbornly we insist on our exceptionality. The life of our species, like that of the individual, is finite, and just as each of us chooses to avoid reckless behavior (most of the time), so too should humanity. Reasonable decision making, however, requires that we avoid binary arguments and, in the case of old-growth forest conservation, that foresters, logging companies and environmentalists gather at the same table to achieve some practical compromise.

Logging a clearcut (with windrows); Olympic Peninsula, Washington

Unfortunately, in our capitalist system, state and federal incentives are needed to bring those parties together. A "green future" is tenable only if the necessary changes in technology and lifestyle generate an altogether different kind of green: cash money. Until alternative energy cheerleaders and their allies assuage the concerns of those citizens dependent on income provided by logging and mining companies, the hard-working, blue-collar folks will remain united in opposition to the relatively privileged mouthpieces of environmentalism.

Photo credits: Puget Sound, Picturehell; Hurricane Ridge view, Ryan Hadley; Highway 101, MorleyRoarly; Lake Crescent, Harry Hunt; Forks sign, Idrose; 101 clearcut, Hungry Hyaena; Logging with windrows, Brewbrooks

(More pictures of my trip can be found here. And, again, a big thank you to the photographers who I've ripped from for this post. More posts about the trip will follow.)