Friday, May 21, 2010


View of Empire State Building; Manhattan, NYC; May 2009

As I prepare to move from New York City, my home for over a decade, to San Francisco, my home for at least a few years, I find myself viewing NYC through the eyes of a man in limbo. I'm still living in Queens, but my attention is already on the road.

Vacant lot; East Village, Manhattan; May 2008

A decade of NYC living makes me, by at least one standard, an official "New Yorker." How does that define me? New York, like all conurbations, is ever in flux. On my watch, it's changed in remarkable ways. What changes will come after I'm no longer a resident? Likewise, what changes are yet in store for me, a similarly adaptable organism?

Samuel Cohen Son graffiti; East Village, NYC; April 2010

I moved to New York City in October 1999, not long after I graduated from The College of William & Mary. I was then an ambitious twenty-one year old with a deeply cynical streak and an abiding love of beer and partying. My paintings and drawings featured naked people interacting in various ways with other animals, medical instruments, fossils, and, on occasion, Teletubbies. (If a reader knows what became of the big Tinky Winky sex painting, I'd love to see a photo of it!) Despite my apparent enthusiasm, I was steeped in melancholy. I spent hours each week brooding over "I," my pet novel project, a 1990s East Village vampire update of Hermann Hesse's Steppenwolf. I viewed humanity as a noxious species, religion as the most noxious of human inventions, and I not so secretly looked forward to our inevitable extinction.

Today, I'm an ambitious thirty-two year old who reacts against cynicism, drinks much less, and generally dislikes partying. Naked people sometimes appear in my paintings, but there aren't any Teletubbies. I'm a stubborn optimist. Each morning, I take twenty minutes to humbly celebrate a new day; if I wake in a funk, I fight through the fog to see anew just how marvelous life is. I recall my earlier character with some embarrassment. What was wrong with the arrogant kid who labored on a novel that painted such an ugly picture of humanity and religion? Perhaps he just needed to be more intellectually rigorous, and to open his eyes to the awesome fact of being? Or maybe that twenty-one year old also needed a good hug, which is no small thing?

Greenpoint, Brooklyn; May 2009

My time in New York City has seen me metamorphize from a hardened and cynical adolescent into an optimistic, joyful adult. The direction of this evolution runs counter to the standard assumption made about the effect of NYC living. As the columnist Mary Schmich warned (and director Baz Luhrmann popularized with his song "Everybody's Free (To Wear Sunscreen)"),
"Live in New York City once, but leave before it makes you hard; live in Northern California once, but leave before it makes you soft."
In my experience, however, NYC living sanded smooth the hard edges.

Wollman Rink; Central Park; Manhattan; June 2008

Perhaps, too, the mournful and nostalgic wails of NYC residents (myself included) are misguided? We should accept that "what will come, will come" without falling victim to fatalistic impotence. New York City (and Manhattan, in particular) is one of the most sustainable, environmentally responsible cities in the world, and its educated, informed residents should work with New York State and City representatives to make sure the city continues apace on that front. They should also do all they can to ensure that it remains a mecca for tolerance, the arts, and cultural pluralism. In what ways I can, I'll do the same from the Left coast; New York City is a part of me, and I will always feel a part of New York City.

Love and peace to all of my friends here. Thank you for everything. I'll be in touch. I'll visit. I hope that you'll visit me.

Upper New York Bay from Staten Island; May 2008

Image credits: all photography, Hungry Hyaena

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Susan Silas' Heroic Living

Susan Silas
"found birds; 2000 - the present"
(Image 17 of 23 from the portfolio "eyes wide shut")
Archival ink jet prints on Hahnemühle photo rag paper
22 x 17 inches

Until recently, I was unfamiliar with Susan Silas' artwork. She is perhaps best known for projects memorializing the Shoah, but it wasn't an awareness of her Holocaust work that led me to "Helmbrecht's Walk, 1998-2003." Instead, it was a photograph of a dead American kestrel that Silas emailed me in March.

I have only an inkling of what essay or artwork of mine inspired the artist to send me the image, but I'm grateful that she did. I shamelessly admit to being the sort who finds soulful beauty in images of death, and I was touched by the striking and contemplative photograph. A month after I received the picture, I visited Silas in her Brooklyn home, to look at prints from her "found birds" series. Still pondering her work a week after that visit, I headed to Hebrew Union College's Jewish Institute of Religion Museum, eager to compare what I saw and sensed in "found birds" to Susan's more easily classifiable (though by no means "easy") Shoah work.

Susan Silas
"found birds; 2000 - the present"
(Image 3 of 11 from the portfolio "what remains")
Archival ink jet prints on Hahnemühle photo rag paper
20 x 48 inches

The HUC press release for "Helmbrecht's Walk" describes the project succinctly.
"On April 13, 1945, more than 700 women were forced to march 225 miles in 22 days from the Helmbrecht's Labor Camp, a small satellite unit of the Flossenburg Concentration Camp in Germany, to the Czech city of Volary. [...] During the course of this forced march the women were ill fed, inadequately clothed, denied shelter, and capriciously beaten. On the sixth day of the march, the non-Jewish prisoners were separated from the group, leaving the remaining 580 Jewish women to continue until May of 1945.

With determination and sensitivity, Silas traced the march in 1998 on the 53rd anniversary of the event by walking along the same path as the Helmbrecht's women for 22 days in Germany and the Czech Republic. She documented her journey in Helmbrecht's Walk, a collection of 48 archival color prints presented as an unbound book. [...] The images contextualized by Silas' daily commentary of her own experiences are coupled with news reports of event occurring elsewhere in the world on that same day in 1998. This juxtaposition, she says, functions 'to heighten our awareness of the fact that we are all presently witnesses to unspeakable events and extreme suffering for which we take no more responsibility than did many witnesses to the Holocaust.'"
Silas' project addresses the complicated relationship between place and time or, as cultural critic and historian Simon Schama's consideration of the topic framed it, "landscape and memory." When Silas conceived of the Helmbrecht's project, she believed (or maybe hoped) that walking the same path that the Helmbrecht's women had would allow her some intimate experience of or insight into the terrible march. In fact, this didn't prove so. Silas describes her walk as "relatively mundane and unexceptional." She continues, "My feet hurt. I get tired. [...] I found it more, rather than less difficult to understand how these women made this journey once I was out on the road."

Susan Silas
"Helmbrecht's Walk, 1998 - 2003"
(Day 1, Monday 13 April 1998, Helmbrechts to Schwartzenbach Saale, 1998)
Archival ink jet prints on Hahnemühle photo rag paper

Yet many of the captions she includes with the photographs reference artists and thinkers such as Werner Herzog, who understand "walking as a sacrament." Such language calls to mind the Australian Aborigines' songlines, mnemonic stories that are spoken or sung as the Aborigine walks over the referenced terrain. In his marvelous book Spell of the Sensuous, David Abram relates a striking, relevant anecdote.
"A similar tale is told by [Bruce] Chatwin. He was traveling in a Land Cruiser with several friends, including an Aboriginal man nicknamed Limpy whom they were driving to a particular place on his songline. Limpy, whose clan Ancestor was the Native Cat, or tjipla (a small marsupial with a long, banded tail), had never been to this place along the Native Cat songline, yet he now wished to go there in order to see some distant relatives who were dying there. During the course of seven hours driving through the back country, bumping across shallow rivers and under gum trees, the Aboriginal man sat motionless in the front seat, squeezed between the driver, Arkady, and another passenger, except for a short burst of action when the truck crossed part of his songline. Later,
'[w]e came to the confluence of two streams: that is, we met the stream we had crossed higher up on the main road. This lesser stream was the route of Tjilpa Men, and we were joining it at right angles. As Arkady turned the wheel to the left, Limpy bounced into action. Again he shoved his head through both windows. His eyes rolled wildly over the rocks, the cliffs, the palms, the water. His lips moved at the speed of a ventriloquist's and, though them, came a rustle: the sound of wind through branches.

Arkady knew at once what was happening. Limpy had learnt his Native Cat couplets for walking pace, at four miles an hour, and we were traveling at twenty-five. Arkady shifted into bottom gear, and we crawled along no faster than a walker. Instantly, Limpy matched his tempo to the new speed. He was smiling. His head swayed to and fro. The sound became a lovely melodious swishing; and you knew that, as far as he was concerned, he was the Native Cat.'"
I believe that what was missing for Silas was a story line, the narrative informed by the landscape (and vice versa) that, among indigenous groups such as the dwindling Aboriginal population of Australia, is traditionally passed from generation to generation. In some respects, "Helmbrecht's Walk" is an attempt to locate such a story, an earnest effort to discover in the landscape the marks of what happened decades before. In our postmodern, peripatetic culture, nations and traditions do not generally fare well. In some respects, this is a positive development, as our tribal perspectives and prejudices erode into some variety of tentative, liberal pluralism. On the other hand, it's ever more difficult to feel confident about one's identity and how it relates to landscape, vocation, and nation.

My time with "Helmbrecht's Walk" confirmed my supposition, however, that Susan's art is not primarily interested in cultural identity or particular histories. Instead, she is most concerned with "the big questions." To one degree or another, all art wrestles with or reacts to these existential imponderables, but Susan's exploration is more focused and urgent than most. Fortunately, even though her work is preoccupied with mortality and meaning, she manages to avoid the pitfalls of such terrain; her work is neither macabre nor aestheticized to the point of anesthetization.

Susan Silas
"found birds; 2000 - the present"
(Image 1 of 21 from the portfolio "blackbird")
Archival ink jet prints on Hahnemühle photo rag paper
22 x 17 inches

Two days after I visited "Helmbrecht's Walk," I read "Eudaimonia, existentialism, and the practice of medicine," an essay by Dr. Andrew Radu included in the Spring 2010 issue of The Pharos of Alpha Omega Alpha Honor Medical Society. In his essay, Dr. Radu describes the existentialist ideal of tragic optimism. He writes of it, "even in the face of imminent death, we have the ability to reevaluate life." He goes on:
"A crucial concept held by many existentialist philosophers is that of heroic living. All humans have the ultimate freedom to live boldly in the face of tragedy. Living with this concept makes attaining a goal of eudaimonia less important than simply striving to do so. [...] The concept of tragic optimism proposes that in a life that can be circumscribed by pain, guilt, and death, one should say 'yes to life in spite of everything.'"
Indeed, as I wrote in "Eudaimonia," a January 2009 essay that explored my then nascent optimism,
"Acknowledging our species' precarious position is not defeatist; on the contrary, accepting the inevitable nourishes the individual's desire to contribute. Faced with an impossibly difficult prospect, only individual effort can sustain us. As Albert Camus concluded in The Myth of Sisyphus, 'The struggle itself is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.'"
The Shoah is bleak history, a subject watered by the blood of millions, and it is fertile soil for such "big questions." Silas' "found birds" remind us that so, too, is the striving and passing of a blackbird. The artist's reckoning with death is her own form of "heroic living."

Image credits: all artwork, courtesy Susan Silas

Friday, May 14, 2010

"What Makes Art Prophetic?"

"Prophetic artists ask, 'What stories need telling now?' They see that to survive the crisis in democracy, to achieve humane and sustainable community, we need the capacity to put ourselves in the other's place and make choices driven by more than crude self-interest; and the social imagination to envisage new solutions to stubborn social problems. We need stories that draw the connections between public choices and actual human lives, stories that cultivate awareness and compassion.

Empathy and social imagination cannot be learned through intellect alone. Through film, theater, dance, music, literature, and visual art, through sharing our stories of resourcefulness and resilience, through sharing our own creativity, human beings have always learned to know and care for each other, to strengthen our communities and to face down challenges.

[...] No one can guarantee that we will get what we want. All we can do is discover what ignites our passion, offer up our best efforts in its service, and surrender to the processes that have produced so many astounding surprises in the course of human history. As every artist knows, the pleasure is in the doing, at least as much as the result."
-Arlene Goldbard

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

More Amy Talluto

Amy Talluto
"Sweet William"
Oil on canvas
60 x 74 inches

I've written about or otherwise featured Amy Talluto's dramatic landscape paintings on HH several times before...and for good reason. She's one of the best contemporary landscape painters working.

Amy Talluto
"Maple Forest"
Oil on canvas
80 x 60 inches

Sunday, May 09, 2010

What Remains

I've posted Chris Jordan's photographs on HH in years past, but I haven't before showcased his pictures of albatross remains. The images are powerful reminders of the too often unseen and unconsidered impacts of our species' prolific, reckless consumption.

On his website, Jordan writes of the series, "Midway: Message from the Gyre,
"These photographs of albatross chicks were made in September, 2009, on Midway Atoll, a tiny stretch of sand and coral near the middle of the North Pacific. The nesting babies are fed bellies-full of plastic by their parents, who soar out over the vast polluted ocean collecting what looks to them like food to bring back to their young. On this diet of human trash, every year tens of thousands of albatross chicks die on Midway from starvation, toxicity, and choking.

To document this phenomenon as faithfully as possible, not a single piece of plastic in any of these photographs was moved, placed, manipulated, arranged, or altered in any way. These images depict the actual stomach contents of baby birds in one of the world's most remote marine sanctuaries, more than 2000 miles from the nearest continent."
Today, as crude oil continues to spread over the Gulf of Mexico from the Deepwater Horizon rig, we'd do well to remember that one of the significant uses of crude oil is the production of petroleum-based plastics. Individually, we can help alleviate our reliance on offshore oil wells and imported oil by consuming less plastic and recycling what we must use.

Photo credits: all images, Chris Jordan

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Remix or Rip-off?

Last week, in need of an image of a 2001 painting of mine, I Googled the work's title, "being soon what you have always been becoming." It's a curious turn of phrase, and I rightly assumed that there wouldn't be many exact matches. One of the topmost Google finds read "Jansky Noise - Being Soon What You Have Always Been Becoming." Intrigued, I clicked it. This is what appeared on my screen.

The static image in the YouTube video player is a collage predominantly composed of elements taken from a number of different drawings and paintings made by me. The accompanying video description (located just below the player) by RaXham, the soundscape artist behind Jansky Noise, is a slightly - very slightly - edited version of one of my old artist statements. Nowhere is my art or writing credited.

I'm a proponent of remixing, collage, cut-and-paste, and other forms of creative riffing. I'm an opponent of unrestrained, crippling copyright laws and of selfish artists who prioritize the bottom-line over the creative commons. As such, I appreciate RaXham's description, found on his or her YouTube profile page:
"Creator and sound designer. Pirate of the seas. Plunging into the depths of the treasure trove, diving deeper to un-cover and expose hidden treasures and re-polished jewels!"
Well and good, RaXham, but in cases where the words that the re-mixer draws on are used in an essentially collaborative fashion (for example, RaXham has borrowed my hand and voice to illustrate and describe his or her aural creation), I feel that some acknowledgement is due.

RaXham, if you ever read this, please drop me a line. I'm honored that you made a collage of my works to accompany your soundscape, and that the words I put down to describe my artwork were also applicable to your sound experiments. But you should have asked for my permission. I would have assented...on the condition that you credit my work and provide a link to my portfolio website.