Sunday, November 29, 2009

Picturing Alternative Futures

James Griffioen
From the "Feral Houses" series

Last week, Flavorpill's Flavorwire newsletter introduced me to James Griffioen's photography. "Feral Houses," the series featured by Flavorpill, focuses on abandoned houses in Detroit, Michigan. Griffioen writes,
"For a few beautiful months every summer, some of the tens of thousands of abandoned houses become feral in every sense: they disappear behind ivy or the untended shrubs and trees planted generations ago to decorate their yards. As the city of Detroit disappears, nature is flourishing."
Considered as a whole, the "Feral Houses" series is a record of our complicated relationship with the land upon which we live and depend, as well as of our ailing community roots.

James Griffioen
From the "Feral Houses" series

Detroit's Rust Belt era history is generally bleak. Today, much of the city is classified as a food desert. Sitting down for a hearty meal with friends and family this Thanksgiving evening, I recalled Rebecca Solnit's inspiring Harper's Magazine article, "Detroit Arcadia" (July 2007). Solnit writes,
"Detroit is a cautionary tale about one-industry towns: it shrank the way the old boomtowns of the gold and silver rushes did, as though it had been mining automobiles and the veins ran dry, but most of those mining towns were meant to be ephemeral. People thought Detroit would go on forever. [...] I took many pictures on my visits to Detroit, but back home they just looked like snapshots of abandoned Nebraska farmhouses or small towns farther west on the Great Plains. Sometimes a burned-out house would stand next to a carefully tended twin, a monument to random fate; sometimes the rectilinear nature of city planning was barely perceptible, just the slightest traces of a grid fading into grassy fields accented with the occasional fire hydrant. One day after a brief thunderstorm, when the rain had cleared away and chunky white clouds dotted the sky, I wandered into a neighborhood, or rather a former neighborhood, of at least a dozen square blocks where trees of heaven waved their branches in the balmy air. Approximately one tattered charred house still stood per block. I could hear the buzzing of crickets or cicadas, and I felt as if I had traveled a thousand years into the future."
Yet the central focus of Solnit's essay are the heroic, local reclamations of Detroit's abandoned lots for community gardens or small-scale farming enterprises.
"I also saw the lush three-acre Earth Works Garden, launched by Capuchin monks in 1999 and now growing organic produce for a local soup kitchen. I saw a 4-H garden in a fairly ravaged east-side neighborhood, and amid the utter abandonment of the west side, I saw the handsome tiled buildings of the Catherine Ferguson Academy for Young Women, a school for teenage mothers that opens on to a working farm, complete with apple orchard, horses, ducks, long rows of cauliflower and broccoli, and a red barn the girls built themselves. I met Ashley Atkinson, the young project manager for The Greening of Detroit, and heard about the hundred community gardens they support, and the thousands more food gardens that are not part of any network. The food they produce, Atkinson told me, provides food security for many Detroiters. 'Urban farming, dollar for dollar, is the most effective change agent you can ever have in a community,' she said. Everywhere I went, I saw the rich soil of Detroit and the hard work of the gardeners bringing forth an abundant harvest any organic farmer would envy."
Similar projects are gaining momentum in American cities that aren't suffering as acutely as Detroit. Community garden and farmer's market movements are thriving in many urban centers, and urbanite hunters are no longer unheard of. Last week, the New York Times reported on the growing number of locavores taking up hunting, but, unlike Charlottesville, Virginia's "Deer Hunting for Locavores" class and San Francisco's Bull Moose Hunting Society, ventures made possible by relative privilege and foresight, Detroit's repurposing and enterprise is born of pressing need.

James Griffioen
From the "Feral Houses" series

Contemplating Griffioen's handsome photographs, it's impossible not to think of Detroit's economic and health struggles. Still, his subjects, the "feral houses" themselves, don't strike this Eastern Shore boy as that unusual. All regions marked by poverty offer up monuments to the ceaseless action of Nature and time. Recent studies show that Accomack, the Virginia county that I was raised in and that my parents call home, is "the fattest" county in the state. It is also one of the poorest. Abandoned houses and overgrown automobiles figure as prominently in my mental portrait of the Shore as do salt marshes and the rich smell of freshly turned earth.

Unlike the citizens of Detroit's urban environment, Eastern Shore folks are not strangers to hunting, fishing, or farming. One might therefore assume that food desertification and obesity are unlikely. Unfortunately, access to fresh, healthy foods doesn't mean that locals won't instead opt for fast food! Furthermore, community ties might be even weaker on the Shore than they are in Detroit, eroded in part by an epidemic reliance on the automobile and big-box stores.

What does the future portend for Detroit and Virginia's Eastern Shore? Taking the long view, I'm optimistic. A decade hence, Detroit might well provide a more sustainable model for beleaguered urban communities. The Eastern Shore, however, is a different type of community, and one still on the decline; recovery will come more slowly.

Don Amadeo
House on White's Neck Road; Parksley, Virginia

Like Griffioen's pictures, Don Amadeo's photographs of the Eastern Shore remind us of the slow creep of geologic time, the long long view. Human communities may rise and fall and rise again, but all eventually succumb. So, too, with species. There is an ambivalent beauty in overgrown ruins; they celebrate the wonder of life's eternal striving even as they proclaim mortality.

Don Amadeo
Ole Rusty; Parksley, Virginia

Photo credit: "Feral Houses" photographs, courtesy James Griffioen; ShoreRebel photographs, courtesy Don Amadeo

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Stars Align for Abe's Penny

Christopher Reiger
"Constellation (raven)"
Pen and sumi ink, gouache, and watercolor on Arches paper
11 3/4 x 10 3/4 inches

Four of my constellation drawings illustrate the latest Abe's Penny newsletter. What is Abe's Penny, you're wondering?
"Abe's Penny [is a] Micro-Magazine created by Anna and Tess Knoebel. Each issue is a series of four postcards featuring a narrative that unfolds in sequence, one part per week. The narrative is a combination of photographs and text, in the format of a traditional postcard. Collectible and temporal, the cards vary each month, with a different artist and writer collaborating on each issue."
Check out the Abe's Penny website for more information and a sampling of back issues.

Image credit: Christopher Reiger, 2009

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Close Encounters

Three and a half months ago, I heralded the launch of The Endangered Species Print Project. Since then, the ESPP website has undergone a dramatic face lift and two new prints have been released.

Molly Schafer and Jenny Kendler, the project's founders, have also set up an ESPP blog. One of their recent ESPP blog posts intensified my already robust sense of wonder and reverence.

I'm fascinated by leopard seals (Hydrurga leptonyx). They're charismatic creatures, and beautiful, too. They are also brutal and fearsome. Their power, underwater grace, and remarkable jaws make them one of the world's supremely adapted predators. Watching documentary footage of a leopard seal hunting penguins, it's impossible not to marvel at the bloody ballet, even if you quietly mourn the death of the seal's popular and plump prey.

My "experience" of the leopard seal is all secondhand and mediated, yet I'm stricken with a quiet awe when I contemplate a film of the seal shadowing through its submarine realm. Imagine, then, how National Geographic photographer Paul Nicklen felt during his remarkable Antarctic encounter (and ensuing relationship) with a seal whose "head is twice as wide as a grizzly bear's head."


Please watch the video.

Oh, and think about investing in some ESPP prints for the holidays! If you do so, you'll be giving two gifts: a limited edition print to a happy recipient, and a financial boost to one of the worthy non-profit organizations working to protect endangered species and critical habitat.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Tikkun Daily Art Gallery Feature

Christopher Reiger
"the bird opened its eyes as I did mine"
Watercolor, gouache, acrylic, pencil, sumi ink and marker on Arches paper
27 x 32 inches

I'm happy to announce that my artwork is featured in Tikkun Daily Blog's art gallery.

Tikkun Daily introduces readers to contemporary art "that critiques the pretensions and cruelties of our materialistic and self-centered culture, as well as [... teaches] us something new about politics or spirituality."

From the site's art gallery mission statement:
"Why does so much art these days lack social, political, and spiritual depth? The idea for this gallery arose from our yearning for images that are deeply moving, nourishing, and provocative.

It often seems that 'realism' in any of the arts has come to mean painful realities: the things we would rather cover over, the rapes and violence and harshness, the dirt and poverty. We’d love to see uses of the term that also referred to love, empathy, wonder, beauty, recovery. Those are real too. They happen. But love and empathy [...] are often portrayed with Hallmark-card sentimentalism, or in some unreal way.

This art gallery is a space for images of peace, hope, and social transformation that are fully grounded in an awareness of the suffering that exists in our world."
Please visit Tikkun Daily to read Philip Barcio's "Beast's Burden: Paintings by Christopher Reiger." I encourage you to also check out the work of the other artists so far featured on the site, and to learn more about Tikkun Daily here.

Image credit: Christopher Reiger, 2009

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Falling Down

In the wake of last Thursday's tragic shooting at Fort Hood, the American media have made much of Major Nidal Malik Hasan's religious affiliation and, more specifically, of his connection to a radical Muslim cleric based in Yemen.

Many voices on the right have touted Hasan's heinous actions as the latest evidence of Islam's corrupt and violent core. Most of the commentators on the left, by contrast, insist that Major Hasan was a victim of circumstance, and that his murderous rampage was precipitated by external pressures. Considering the left's reasoning, Michael Douglas's defense contractor turned urban vigilante in the 1993 film "Falling Down" comes to mind. At the time of that film's release, critic Roger Ebert wrote of it,
"What is fascinating about the Douglas character, as written and played, is the core of sadness in his soul. [...] There is no exhilaration in his rampage, no release. He seems weary and confused, and in his actions he unconsciously follows scripts that he may have learned from the movies, or on the news, where other frustrated misfits vent their rage on innocent bystanders."
There is salient insight in the left's response, but generally assessments on both the political left and right are ideological and reductionistic. Media pundits are involved in a fraught game of Pin the Tail on the Donkey. While the right-wing strives to pin the tail on Islam, left-wing pundits do what they can to prevent that stigma from sticking. Precious intellectual and creative energy is expended in the process; these commentators could instead provide a full accounting of what causes people to turn to religious extremism, or to extremism of any sort.

I especially appreciated, then, Dave Belden's "How Do We Understand Major Hasan?," an OpEd-style post at Tikkun Daily. I encourage folks to read it. Belden writes,
"Given that in all of our lives personal pain intersects with cultural narratives, then it is surely no surprise that for the killers it’s rarely ever a simple question of either a sick individual or a follower of extremist ideas. Timothy McVeigh was surely both when he bombed the Oklahoma Federal Building. To mention his personal pain is not to excuse him, but should give pause to all those who demonize others."
In response, I wrote in the comment section of Belden's post,
"In the media frenzy that passes for much contemporary news and politics, the humane aspects of most events or socio-political dynamics are generally overlooked. So, too, are the individuals involved reduced to caricatures and concepts. I wish I had some ideas as to how we, as a community, might address this ugly, dangerous spin. Alas…

As for David Brooks and [those to his right], I frequently marvel at their incomplete assertion that Muslim extremism is the culprit (at Fort Hood, in particular, but globally, too). Why not continue the diagnosis, revealing the imbalanced, immoral global system that produces extreme poverty, social and political disenfranchisement, and national/ethnic resentment/competition as the source of the tsoris that drives so many young men and women to embrace extremism (or, at least, adds to the appeal of a black-and-white, reductionist world view)?

Certainly religious extremism should be condemned and confronted, but addressing the root cause (which is also to address social justice globally) seems more sensible. But, were the conservative commentators to finger that root, they would implicitly condemn their own condemnation, as it, too, is born of a naive, black-hat-versus-white-hat construction of our volatile, shrinking world."
Photo credit: image ripped from Voice of America News

Friday, November 06, 2009

A Bitter Ode to Hermes

Anatomy of a Creative Funk

Christopher Reiger
Pen and sumi ink, gouache, watercolor and marker on Arches paper
15 1/4 x 15 1/2 inches

I apologize for the lack of regular HH content. Writing is as much a part of my creative process as is art-making, and, for weeks now, I've been creatively out-of-sorts. Fairly or not, I attribute this bout of artistic malaise to my solo show.

Visual artists often speak of the funk that descends when a solo show is on view. My first solo exhibition, "Mongrel Truth," at Brooklyn's AG Gallery, gave rise to minimal tsoris, but "Some Species of Song" has played havoc with my head. I've little or no inclination to write, and I've had to force myself to work on studies for future paintings and drawings.

I've heard many explanations for the funk put forward. Most often, artists will say something along the lines of "the batteries need to recharge." That seems natural enough, but, why, I wonder, does this requisite recharge always seem to coincide with a solo show?

I discussed my condition with a writer friend, and her hypothetical explanation of the solo show funk is convincing, at least with respect to my experience of the malady. She contends that, before the solo show, the artist works happily in the studio because he is fully present in his creative labor. In this "process mode," the artist understands the artwork and the art-making as an extension of self, a soulful and intimate activity. Once the artwork is displayed in a commercial gallery, however, the artist must conceive of the artwork anew. In the "product mode," the art is commodified and abstracted, effectively reduced to paper currency, worthless without social consensus. In transitioning from studio space to market space, the artist has crossed over a Hermetic boundary, leaving behind the eroticism of Eros for the commercial quantification of Hermes.

I've quoted from and alluded to Lewis Hyde's fascinating book The Gift before; it's again pertinent. Hyde's foundational position is that all art is a ceremonial gift, that the creative act is part of a free and open dialogue of spiritually nourishing exchange. Once the market commodifies art, however, "a part of the [artist's] self is inhibited and restrained," and the greater community suffers for it. Sadly, this inhibition and incompleteness is, in our capitalistic world view, assumed to be natural; the artist's worth is counted in coinage rather than spirit. One manifestation of this corruption appears in notions of gender.
"[T]he nineteenth century saw a decline in faith coincide with the remarkable success of a secular, mercantile, and entrepreneurial spirit. The story has been told many times. By the end of the century, to be 'self-made' in the market, or to have successfully exploited the natural gifts of the New World, were the marks of a Big Man, while attention to inner life and the community (and to their subtle fluids - religion, art, and culture) was consigned to the female sphere. The division of commerce by gender still holds. As a character in Saul Bellow's novel Humboldt's Gift remarks in regard to creative artists, 'To be a poet is a school thing, a skirt thing, a church thing.' In a modern, capitalist nation, to labor with gifts (and to treat them as gifts, rather than exploit them) remains a mark of the female gender."
Considering muscular capitalism, Hyde calls Hermes the most contemporary of the Greek pantheon. He is the god of the self-made man, the trafficker in goods, pure and soiled.
"Hermes is an amoral connecting deity. When he's the messenger of the gods he's like the post office: he'll carry love letters, hate letters, stupid letters, or smart letters. His concern is the delivery, not what's in the envelope. He wants money to change hands, but he does not distinguish between the just price and a picked pocket. [...] Hermes can't be trusted, of course. The say 'he either leads the way or guides astray.' [...] In a Hermetic mood we will make a hundred intellectual connections only to find, when we check them with a less restless god, that ninety-nine of them are useless.

Homer tells us that Zeus gave Hermes 'an establish deeds of barter amongst men throughout the fruitful earth,' and he has done his job well. He may be the twentieth century's healthiest Greek god. He is present wherever things move quickly without regard to specific moral content, in all electronic communication, for example, or in the mails, in computers and in the stock exchange (especially in international money markets)."
Indeed, the amorality of global capitalism was spectacularly revealed in the recent hemorrhaging of the financial markets. Still, as a people, we've given ourselves to the worship of Hermes, and we champion the good news that he carries over the bad. The art market is no exception. There are, of course, some very positive aspects of the contemporary art market, just as there are some wonderful individuals participating in it, but a dark cloud shadows all contemporary commerce...and luxury commerce, in particular.

In a short passage, mid-way through the book, Hyde offers readers a striking condemnation of the contemporary art market.
"The more we allow such commodity art to define and control our gifts, the less gifted we will become, as individuals and as a society. The true commerce of art is a gift exchange, and where that commerce can proceed on its own terms we shall be heirs to the fruits of gift exchange: in this case, to a creative spirit whose fertility is not exhausted in use, to the sense of plentitude which is the mark of all erotic exchange, to a storehouse of works that can serve as agents of transformation, and to a sense of an inhabitable world - an awareness, that is, of our solidarity with whatever we take to be the source of our gifts, be it the community or the race, nature, or the gods. But none of these fruits will come to us where we have converted our arts to pure commercial enterprises."
I hope that my charitable sales model can, in some small way, act as a corrective to the market's distortions, and serve as inspiration for other artists. We are empowered to change the system. We only need to become enthusiastic about doing so.

Image credit: Christopher Reiger, 2009