Saturday, December 8, 2012

A tale of two timed tickets.

This post is about three months late.  But both of these art world events are worth remembering.

Art museums are on a quest to surprise and delight visitors with blockbuster shows by some of the art world’s best stars.  But they’re also delivering on this quest with art that is experiential.  In particular, sculpture is often given over to interactions with viewers.  It makes for extra fun and inspiring trips to museums, but it also creates some problems.  Busy museums like the crowd appeal of interactive sculptures and installations. But with the massive crowds, it can be difficult for museums to give attendees a safe and meaningful experience  That’s where the timed ticket comes in.  These tickets are usually free with museum admission, but they limit the number of people who can participate in the artwork, making the experience more inspiring.

On my last trip to New York, I experienced two timed-ticket events: The first was Tomas Saraceno’s Cloud City on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the second was Yayoi Kusama’s Fireflies on the Water at the Whitney Museum of Art.  Normally I’d write a separate post for art events this big.  But even though these two projects are wildly different, I felt they explored similar themes and ideas.  I thought it might be interesting to look at the two works in a single post.

Let’s start with Saraceno’s Cloud City.  For several years now I’ve seen photos of Saraceno’s amazing works with their giant clear bubbles that people climb onto and into and I dreamed of experiencing one of his installations.  So when I learned that Saraceno was chosen as the artist to appear on the roof of the Met this summer I was very excited.  Part of my enthusiasm stemmed from the fact that this is the Argentinian artist’s first major commission in the United States.

Cloud City is the largest and most ambitious structure in a series of works called Cloud Cities/Airport City. The work on the roof of the Met is a "constellation of sixteen interconnected multipolygonal modules linked in a nonlinear configuration.”  That’s a description that probably suits an artist who was originally trained as an architect.  It certainly doesn't accurately represent the art.  Cloud City is a three dimensional, human-sized bee hive of Plexiglas and mirror-finished steel. From the outside it forces you to see your environment even as it asks you to focus solely on the work of art. Each time you try to focus on the sculpture, you’re given reflected views and vistas of the world that surrounds you.  From the inside it’s a world of fun-house mirrors that force you to confront images of yourself, almost to infinity; a surprisingly contemplative work.  The curators at the Met suggest this work is an “investigation of how to expand the ways in which we inhabit and experience our environment.”  I loved it.  Here are a few photos. (By the way, no cameras are allowed inside the structure.  It helps to have a friend on the ground taking picture while you're inside.)

At the Whitney, Yayoi Kusama's Fireflies on the Water was a much different experience.  For this work, you wait patiently in a white gallery for 10 to 15 minutes.  When your turn arrives, a gallery attendant opens a door in the wall of the gallery, let's you into the sculpture, and starts a stopwatch, giving you 60 seconds inside.   During that minute, you're enclosed in a dark, mirrored room.  You walk out on a small gangplank to stand on a tiny platform in the middle of the room.  You're surrounded by still water.  Tiny LED lights are suspended from the ceiling.  The mirrored walls of the room (including the ceiling) create an infinite space that expands the perception of not just space, but also time.  It's a call to contemplation; a moment to ponder not just our place in the present, but our place in the universe.  

No photos were allowed inside Fireflies on the Water.  So instead, I offer a portrait of Kusama inside the work of art. And just for fun, I'm also posting a photo I took of a Louis Vuitton window display in Tokyo.  Louis Vuitton created a line of products designed by Kusama at about the same time her show debuted at the Whitney.  I saw several window displays for the products, but only at this Tokyo store did the strange visage of Kusama that is seen in the portrait make another appearance.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Book ten: Penguin Lost by Andrey Kurkov

I liked Andrey Kurkov's Death of a Penguin so much that I immediately purchased the sequel, Penguin Lost.  And I'm glad I did.  Because these two short books might just be better as a single volume.  Penguin Lost opens with the same melancholy feel that ended the first book.  Viktor Zolotaryov seems intent on remedying the melancholy so has decided to find his penguin (Misha) and bring him home.  The wisdom of this decision is suspect, since Viktor believes Misha has fallen into the hands of a criminal mob.  And that mob may be looking for Viktor.

Viktor works his way through a number of mob members, only to discover that Misha may actually be in the possession of a Chechen warlord.  Finally he embarks on a dangerous and precarious trip where he encounters many strange characters and engages in equally strange activities.  It's at this point in my review I should probably issue a spoiler alert.  Viktor succeeds at finding Misha.  I won't tell you much more than that.  But this end to the story is the reason why I think the two books work better as a single volume.  It completes the story arch.  The first book starts with quirky, interesting characters that are offbeat, downtrodden, and yet somehow lovable.  It sadly ends without letting you know what has happened to Misha, the best character in the books.  The second book starts with that same feeling of sadness.  But by the time the book ends, you've returned to the offbeat likability of the beginning of the entire tale.  

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Art class for grown ups.

AIGA Salt Lake City and the Mandate Press hosted Jim Sherraden for a printmaking workshop.  Sherraden is the current caretaker of Hatch Show Print, one of America's oldest show poster and design shops located in Nashville. For the workshop, we used many of Hatch's linoleum cuts, woodblocks, and etched magnesium blocks. It was a surprisingly relaxing way to spend a morning.  And there's something extra fun about making a mess with a bunch of ink and paper.

This activity also reminded me that it's my job to be creative.  Lately it seems that I've become overwhelmed by the business of advertising.  My focus on creativity may have suffered.  Spending four hours making visuals with blocks and ink was a great way to re-invigorate creativity.

I have to give a big shout out to the Mandate Press.  It's a fantastic space with all kinds of cool, printy stuff everywhere.  I may have a letterpress project or two that the Mandate Press could help me with.

I leave you with a few photos from the day including images of many of the prints I made.  Although I can't take credit for the circus t-shirt, but I had to share it because it made me giggle.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The art of the Christmas stocking: part three

The stats for Art Lobster show that previous posts about my custom made Christmas stockings are getting plenty of traffic this time of year.  (You can read those posts here and here.)  The increased views served as a reminder that it's time to post images of the 2011 stocking which I call Hello Christmas.

2011 saw me vacationing in Japan so it seemed only appropriate to concoct a stocking that would pay tribute to one of Japan's greatest ambassadors, Hello Kitty. So here she is looking as "kawaii" as ever.  And yes, the black kanji characters at the top spell "Jeff."  

The 2012 stocking is already under production but as always it's top secret until Christmas.  Expect a post next year.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Taking it to the Brazilian streets.

First, I need to make it clear I have no tolerance for cheap graffiti; those meaningless tags that lack any concept, style, or design sensibility. That kind of stuff just messes up a lot of really great buildings and views. That said, I'm an enthusiastic devotee of street art, starting with the masters from the 80s like Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf.  In today's modern world, street has gained at least a little more respect.  And I think that's largely due to a pack of talented individuals who've made it clear that global corporate brands aren't the only entities that should be allowed to express themselves in public places.

With artists like Nunca and the global sensation, identical twins Os Gemeos, Brazil is a hot bed for the latest street art.  Rio has even gone so far as to make street art legal.  And if you're in São Paulo, you can visit an amazing neighborhood that has embraced street art in a way like no other place I've visited.  Beco do Batman is a series of side streets and alleys that are a mecca for fans of street art.  This constantly changing gallery is a tribute to the urban art movement. And it's a surprisingly inspiring place.  So enough with the talking, here are a few photographs.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Book nine: Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov

Dear NPR Books Podcast; Thank you for some of your more obscure book recommendations. They regularly make my literary life more enjoyable. A perfect example is Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov.  This strange little novel is delightful if you can use such a word to describe a Russian novel.  And it is a Russian novel with its bleak scenes and freezing cold winters.

The delight is largely provided by Misha the penguin.  Yes an actual penguin is a central character in the book.  During the fall of the Soviet Union, as zoos could no longer maintain operations, many just gave away their animals to anyone who would take them.  Such is the case with Misha who was adopted by Viktor, a struggling writer living in Kiev.

Viktor takes a job preparing advance obituaries for a local paper.  But as time goes by, Viktor realizes that something isn’t right.  Most of the people for whom he’s written obituaries end up getting murdered. If that’s not strange enough, Viktor is left taking care of Sonya, a friend’s young daughter who instantly befriends Misha.

As the plot progresses, it becomes clear that Viktor’s life might be in danger.  His best hope may be the fact that a shady character has taken to requesting Misha’s presence at events and funerals.  As the depressed penguin’s health declines, the book twists to a melancholy end filled with events that get stranger and stranger.

With a dark sense of humor, Death and the Penguin is one of the strangest, most rewarding books I’ve read in a long time. And the images of Misha enjoying a cold bath or sadly plip-plopping through the kitchen are delightful.  This book easily qualifies for four Jeffies. And if it weren’t for a few outlandish moments at the end, it probably would have gotten five.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Book eight: Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane by Andrew Graham-Dixon.

Maybe I’m stuck in a rut reading books about troubled historical figures who struggled with (or at least may have struggled with) homosexuality.  Because immediately after reading about Alan Turing’s troubled gay life, I moved on to Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane by Andrew Graham-Dixon.

Let me start by saying this is an epic biography of an artist that has always intrigued me.  Graham-Dixon’s attention to historical detail and careful annotation is mind blowing.  It’s obvious this is an author who is intent on getting it right. And while my knowledge of art is far superior to my knowledge of mathematics (which made reading the book about Turing a challenge), it's still easy to feel uninformed up against Graham-Dixon's brilliance.

Even with the immense effort taken to document the details of Caravaggio’s life, this book just wasn’t all that interesting. But it may not be Graham-Dixon’s fault.  It might be that no one knows that much about Caravaggio.  Sure we know he got into a lot of trouble brawling with other cantankerous artists.  Yes we know he probably killed a man.  Of course we know he wasn’t the best at managing his business affairs.  We even know that his relationship with the Catholic Church was something akin to bipolar.  But generally, I pretty much knew most of what is covered in this book, certainly not to the detail provided here, but nonetheless I didn’t feel like the book really introduced me to anything new.  And that’s OK, except Graham-Dixon seems to make up for this fact by adding lots of filler.

Most of the book features the lives of people who lived at the same time and in the same places as Caravaggio.  And a lot of their lives aren’t as interesting as I’d like them to be.  Graham-Dixon suggests that many of these relationships are the reason Caravaggio may have acted the way he did later in life.  I frequently found those assertions to be a stretch.

Which brings me to the one assertion that other art historians have suggested, but that Graham-Dixon suggests is a stretch; Caravaggio was gay (or at least had meaningful homosexual relationships).   Graham-Dixon strikes me as an old white guy who probably is a little uncomfortable with the whole gay thing.  He goes out of his way to confirm that while we have historical documents that confirm Caravaggio had sex with women, there are no historical documents confirming Caravaggio had sex with men.  But in a book that jumps to several historical conclusions (or at least theories), Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane chooses to gloss over a fair amount of circumstantial evidence that the artist and his assistant may have been one of art history’s great gay couples.  And wouldn’t that make a great book.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Book seven: A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines by Janna Levin.

I first learned about troubled mathematician Alan Turing from a RadioLab Shorts podcast.  I knew nothing about the man who basically invented binary code and was instrumental in helping defeat Germany in WWII by developing a machine that broke the German code.  Turing was also gay.  In fact, he was convicted of homosexuality in 1952 and rather than go to prison, he chose treatment with female hormones (chemical castration).  That situation left him less than happy and in 1954 he committed suicide just before his 42nd birthday.

The RadioLab Shorts program was a fantastic look at the genius of Turing and it recommended A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines as a fictionalized look at the mathematician's life.  The novel written by Janna Levin (a mathematician herself) brings together the theories and ideas of Turing and Kurt Godel, a mathematician/logician/philosopher and contemporary of Turing.  While the two never physically met, their ideas seem to play well against each other.  I say seem because I’m definitely not smart enough to read this book with any real understanding of the mathematical principles discussed.  From incompleteness theorems to mechanical decision theories to whatever the hell Wittgenstein was philosophically worried about, this book was sometimes a complicated read. While Levin doesn’t overindulge in the mathematics, it was still enough to confound a novice like me.

The narrator of the book delivers the story in a dreamy, almost surreal style that sometimes feels overwritten.  In fact the language often gets in the way of the story leaving the reader unsure of what he or she just consumed.  And even the story, while somewhat dark, has a fanciful attitude that was confusing.  While the book is far from awful, it had lengthy passages that were tedious.  For my money, if you’re looking to find out more about a very interesting historical figure, I’d download the Radio Lab Shorts episode, The Turing Problem

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Book six: Paris, I Love You but You're Bringing Me Down by Rosecrans Baldwin.

Most major life changes are both magical and difficult.  That's the premise behind Rosencrans Baldwin's charming book Paris, I Love You but You're Bringing Me Down. After landing a job at a Paris advertising agency Baldwin and his wife pack up and move from New York to Paris. This book is the story of their adventures.

I found the title of this book a little misleading.  It's obvious Baldwin loves Paris.  The "bringing me down" part didn't really come through.  The book feels more like a quirky love letter to all things Parisian. Sure, Baldwin writes humorously about the difficulties of living in a country where you don't speak the language well enough to be completely effective. Or about the strange habits and lifestyles of the French.  Or even the weirdness of European advertising.  But all of those stories do more to reveal Baldwin's heartfelt affection for  Paris and its residents that make it feel like Paris is a downer.

The misleading title doesn't mean the book isn't enjoyable.  With its strange mix of eccentric characters and unlikely scenarios Paris, I Love You but You're Bringing Me Down is a short, delightful read; particularly if like me, you work in advertising.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Whitney Biennial

Wow!  I'm really behind on posting.  Yes, the Whitney Biennial ended weeks ago.  And I actually saw the show clear back in April.  But that's not going to stop me from posting this:

Every other year the Whitney Museum of American Art hosts it biennial. And the Art world takes note.  That's because the Whitney Biennial has an impressive track record of defining the Art world's zeitgeist.  And in doing so, they help define the history of humanity. This was my third Whitney Biennial and so far, it's been my favorite.  Here are a few of the works that inspired me.

Nick Mauss offered a lovely work titled Concern, Crush, Desire (2011, cotton applique on velvet, brass door knobs, and doorstoppers). The interactive nature of the work surprised viewers and asked us to consider the role of museums in our society.  The installation also included a number of works from the Whitney's collection, an ingenious way of looking back while propelling Art into the future.

Liz Deschenes had two works in the biennial.  Both were stunning.  I'm not sure exactly what's going on in these "photographs." The images seem more like panels of stainless steel than gelatin silver prints.  I'd definitely hang these in my home.  Here is Untitled (2011, four silver-toned gelatin silver prints).

Pipe Organ (2009 - 2011, tin, paint, speakers, wire, and Yamaha organ) by Lutz Bacher is startling. The work is a mechanical organ that plays relentlessly as you wander the galleries. With a robotic-like device that changes the slow, methodic music, this work has a charm that only an early electronic keyboard can provide.  And yet, there was a sinister aspect to the piece.  The giant pipes from a derelict organ felt more like missiles left over from a war. And the constant musical drive could easily be heard as a strange military march. I wonder if Bacher isn't reminding us that humanity seems intent on an endless need for war.

Sick, Sic, Six, Sic ((Not) Moving): Seagullssssssssssssssssssss. (2018, monofilament, wood, hardware, and textured tape) by Cameron Crawford is a response to the death of six people the artist knew. The work is dated six years in the future and is designed to always be redated to six years ahead of the current time, offering a sense of the impossibility of comprehending loss and death. Most intersting is the museum tape on the floor. Even though you can't access both sides of the almost non-existent wall.  It's as if the artist is suggesting that those on the other side of the vail are being asked to stay a few feet away from the artwork.  It makes one wonder if there are grumpy gallery attendants on the other side of the artwork chastising ghosts for getting too close to the Art.

Elaine Reichek reminds us that craft matters with a variety of works created with hand and machine embroidery.  Here is There's No Need (2011, hand embroidery on linen).

There were several walls covered with the tantalizing monotypes of Nicole Eisenman. The work is called  Untitled (2011, Forty-five mixed-media monotypes).

At this point, I have to talk about one of the weird themes that shouted loud and clear from the Whitney Biennial.  That theme? The vintage record player. Record players were surprising popular at this year's biennial. For example, Tom Thayer presented a variety of works that were so confusing (yet strangely delightful) that I couldn't tell which work was which, even with the Whitney's helpful guide.  Nonetheless, the installation featured not one, but two old record players.

Here is another record playing that was playing loudly in the gallery.  It was part of Dawn Kasper's installation, This Could Be Something If I Let It.  More on that piece later in the post.

Even video artists seem to have ditched high-tech sound for old record players as seen in this still from This Project is not Going to Stop the War/Journey to the Beginning of Time, part of an installation created by Joanna Malinowska.

Malinowska offered some of the most interesting work in show including a work constructed from replicas of mammoth and walrus tusks.  The work referenced Marcel Duchamp's work, Bottle Rack.  But my favorite work in Malinowska's installation was a wall she had the museum staff construct within the museum.  It was just another gallery wall.  But in a brilliant move to skirt the curators, Malinowska chose to hang a painting by an artist not included in the official Whitney Biennial. That painting was Horse Nation (2011, oil on canvas) by Leonard Peltier and it's not the type of painting you normally see at the Whitney.  Here's a photo:

Peltier, a Native American activist, was convicted in the 70s of killing two FBI agents during a riot on a reservation. He is still in prison. Many activists have brought forward evidence that undermines the case against Peltier. By hanging his painting as part of the Biennial, Malinowska not only short circuits curatorial traditions, she brings attention to his activist causes, and draws attention to the fact that for an institution named the Whitney Museum of American Art, very few indigenous Americans are represented within its walls.  That's a pretty bold move.

As promised, here's more information about Dawn Kasper's intriguing work, This Could Be Something If I Let It.  Kasper has been without a studio since 2009 when she lost her job and could no longer afford the space. Born in 1977, Kasper is young enough that she's part of a generation that finds itself in a world where employment can be tricky.  But rather than move back in with her parents, like many of her generation, she turned the experience into art, starting a "nomadic studio practice." Kasper began treating temporary situations as though they were her studio.  For the Whitney Biennial, she took over one gallery, and unpacked all of her belongings.  For almost all of the museum's open hours, she was in her nomadic studio or elsewhere in the museum. You could wander through her studio as she painted or created mini installations or chatted with museum goers.  She was even happy to pause for a portrait:

I also liked the textures of an artist that came alive in the gallery, showing viewers the process of how art is made:

Lastly, I can't end this post without talking about the Whitney Biennial's commitment to performance art.  The entire fourth floor was dedicated to performance with many elements changing throughout the run of the exhibit.  On the day we were there (as if the curators knew I'm a dance fan), a choreographer was rehearsing a future work to be performed at a later date.  It was so cool to be standing in the Whitney's massive fourth floor gallery and watching dancers rehearse.  I'll end with a photograph and a short video of the rehearsal.