Thursday, September 30, 2010

Work of Art

Work of Art's Jerry Saltz & Zoolander's David Bowie both acting as arbiter elegantiae

The hopefuls were lining up this past weekend outside the Brooklyn Museum to audition for season two of Bravo's long-form game-show reality-esque drama Work of Art: The Next Great Artist. According to the art critic Jerry Saltz, who participated in season one of the show as a celebrity judge, for him the program was never intended to reflect the “real art world,”  it was about opening art criticism to a wider audience:
German sculptor Joseph Beuys famously said, “Everyone is an artist.” I wondered if all of our interconnectivity and social networking also made everyone a critic. For me, criticism is a way of showing respect for art; I wanted to share that respect with a large audience and see if it would reciprocate.
I take him at his word. I am a fan of Jerry's but I didn't watch a single episode of season one, and even avoided reading articles and blog posts about the show. I did this not because the show didn't reflect the "real art world," that is after all a very tall order, I did it because at first it seemed everyone seemed to be watching the show. What's the point of being an artist if you do what everybody else is doing? But my contrarian knee-jerk turned to real discomfort as I began to hear about the show. I found the concept of challenges and elimination rounds disrespectful to my small place within the art world. I make art for a living and it bummed me out to have to a museum I love (the Brooklyn Museum has a world class collection and suffers a farm team reputation largely because of its unfortunate proximity to the Modern and the Met) and a critic I really like (Jerry is seriously one of my personal favorites) using young artists as unpaid fodder for a game-show.
I am writing this now because I'm a contrarian and everyone else is done loving and hating Work of Art - everyone but my brother-in-law, Steve Mesler, who is an art fabricator and blogs about art for Huffinton Post, and is one of my closest friends. He has repeatedly defended the show in conversation. He found the artists on the show supportive of one another and pressed me to consider how badly they were being treated not just by snarky bloggers but by Bravo. He and I have a long history of stupid bets and endless arguments, but also of pushing one another to do better. When he told me he planned to video interviews of the kids on line last weekend it got me wondering what constellation of events it would take to get me to watch season two with him. I'll do it but I have one condition: That the producers follow Jerry Saltz's suggestions and hired Christian Viveros-Faune and Bill Powhida to be on the show. Those changes guarantee more reality TV drama and fun than an open bar on the Jersey Shore.
Bill Powhida, Zoolander, Billy Zane and Christian Viveros-Faune

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Flavin Sabers

The intersection of art geek and Star Wars geek feels at times vanishingly small. But my friend, the architect Otto Ruano makes me feel much less alone. Above is a detail of the new nameplate image. It is a recreation in digitally rendered lightsabers of the minimalist artist, Dan Flavin's florecent light fixture installation - the nominal three (to William of Ockham), from 1963 (pictured below).
A few months ago otto and I spent a couple days working through Flavin's catalog raisonne and plotting out every piece he ever made as digitally rendered light sabers. I am lucky to have a few good friends who share my odd ball combinations of interests, and luckier still to have one as tallented and as fun to work with as Otto.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Why is there no misogyny on Star Trek? (Dick 5.1)

Gene Roddenberry's original Star Trek crew; The men of Mad Men.

The short answer is: Because it takes place in the future.
My friend Joanne McNeil wrote a fuller answer on her blog Tomorrow's Museum"There are no sexist men in the 21st century, only stupid men.I read Joanne's post on the heels of posting a piece about my "girl phone" and a very confusing argument I had about feminism recently. It also coincided with some recent stuff I read on the subject of manhood now, and as it is remembered on Mad Men.
For the record, I love carrying a "girl phone." Even as my nephew makes fun of it, I like him to see that I have carried it for three years in spite of the ribbing I receive from him and my other friends. I don't spend a lot of energy 'transgressing gender roles' - its not my bag, but I admire those that do. I am very aware of how much courage it takes for a young man or woman to tell their parents they are trans-gender, and enormous sympathy for parent's struggling to come to terms with that new reality. These are people who have stepped off the map of the known world, they are exploring the future. I have no sympathy meanwhile for the pantsless men celebrated in last winter's Superbowl ads. These over grown boys are stuck in the past. Madison Avenue's answer to the prospect of a world of men without chests are men without pants.

Friday, September 17, 2010

"Dick, Dick, Dick, Dick; Dick, Dick, Dick." - Part 5: Pocket Furniture

Tom Lennon as Officer Dangle; anonymous photo of an organ grinder and his monkey (1892)
(Return to Part 4) While still in high school the comic actor Tom Lennon wrote a short earnest play about looking through his girlfriend's shoes. He believed that all you need to know about a person you can learn from the shoes they own. That idea, that the objects we are most intimate with explain us better than we can explain ourselves, impressed me. Twenty years later I think about Tom's play surprisingly often, usually when I am looking at my own small (but well loved) collection of shoes, but also when I am loading and unloading my pockets, which is something I enjoy doing. I like sorting through the miscellany that finds its way into my pockets over the length of a day; the expected coins, bits of receipts, small tools and orphaned machine screws - as well as the occasional surprise - a bar napkin with a phone number (sweet), a sea shell (doesn't seem like me even to me), even an old subway token not to long ago (I have no idea). But I also enjoy the handling the small collection things I have intentionally assembled over the years. The three things that I carry with me every day: a slotted steel slung key ring I found at the MoMA design store, a folded stainless money clip with a sleeve just big enough to hold a couple credit cards and an ID, and my cell phone.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

"Dick, Dick, Dick, Dick; Dick, Dick, Dick." - Part 4: The Erotic life of Objects

Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel (1512); Shell Silverstein, My Beard (1974)
(Return to Part 3)
Humans were naked for a very long time (we have probably always been shy in comparison to other primates - unusual in our desire to mate privately, but typical in our interest in watching others copulate). Predating cloths it appears our species long enjoyed a peculiar variety of accoutrement. In Bill Bryson's book, A Short History of Nearly Everything, he tells a story that confounds the anthropologist Ian Tatersall:
Sometime about a million and a half years ago, some forgotten genius of the hominid world did an unexpected thing. He (or very possibly her) took one stone and carefully used it to shape another. The result was a simple teardrop-shaped hand-axe, but it was the world's first piece of advanced technology.
It was so superior to existing tools that soon others were following the inventor's lead and making hand-axes of their own. Eventually whole societies existed that seemed to do little else. "They made them in their thousands," says Ian Tattersall. "There are some places in Africa where you literally can't move without stepping on them. It's strange because they are quite intensive objects to make. It was as if they made them for the sheer pleasure of it."
From a shelf in his sunny workroom Tattersall took down an enormous cast, perhaps half a metre long and 20 centimeters wide at its widest point, and handed it to me. It was shaped like a spearhead, but one the size of a stepping stone. As a fiberglass cast it weighed only a few ounces, but the original, which was found in Tanzania, weighed 11 kilograms. "It was completely useless as a tool," Tattersall said "It would have taken two people to lift it adequately and even then it would have been exhausting to try to pound anything with it."
'What was it used for then?'
Tattersall gave me a genial shrug, pleased at the mystery of it. "No idea. It must have had some symbolic importance, but we can only guess what.'"
Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel (1512); Shell Silverstein, The Giving Tree (1964)

This means that over a million years before we began to speak, we were carving stone for the sheer joy of it. Physical, not linguistic, dexterity is therefor at the root of our humanity. Among all the species on earth only spiders have invested as heavily as homo sapien sapiens in fine-sensory motor control. But as Tattersall explains, these things were the Humvee of stone tools, taking two individuals to even lift the thing. A mechanic once broke the news to me that my car would never run again by blunting telling me: "Its art." Over a million years before automobiles became stand-ins for our status (or lack there of) it seems humans were already over compensating. Because these were "completely useless as a tool" so its not a stretch to further assume they are the very first examples of George Kubler's "useless objects" - art.

The heroic evolutionary story I grew up with was that we were hunter/tool makers like the spiders, but it appears that we more closely resemble the domestic preening of bowery birds than the deadly engineering of arachnids. As an artist I find this idea particularly attractive. Turns out the nursery of our species was a sculpture studio not a munitions factory. But beyond professional self-justification, I also find it agrees with my own experience of the curious brand of pleasure I receive from the things I am most intimate with - the erotic life of objects if you will.

The pleasure I get from things often surprises me. It often comes to mind when I find myself am putting away my shoes, tidy up my bookshelf or unloading my pockets at the end of the day. The pleasure I sometimes experience in relation to the object I live with most intimately is not unlike what I feel when I am looking at myself in the mirror: always interesting, but mysterious. Who can say why our own reflection makes for such compelling viewing? Like most people I really enjoy looking at beautiful people. I don't find myself to be particularly handsome, but all the same, just like most every other human on the planet I am fascinated with my reflection. It is much the same with the things I am most intimate with. I have no illusion that they are valuable to anyone else (I don't own that kind of stuff), but I am really happy to have them.
Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel (1512); Shell Silverstein, The Giving Tree (1964)

My favorite pillow is a dense heavy under stuffed thing. I have had for as long as I can remember. My mom used to play a cat-and mouse game on hot summer days. As a very little boy I figured out that if I put my pillow in the freezer, it would stay ice cold long enough for me to get to sleep (I still love a cold pillow). I remember my mom repeatedly busting me; explaining that it was not sanitary to put a pillow in with food. I can't blame her, it is a particularly gross pillow, but I love it, and the game of freezer-pillow-cat-and-mouse only ended when I moved out on my own and got my own freezer. There is obvious nostalgic (a term originally used to describe mental illness that suits this particular relationship perfectly) value to an object like my pillow that partly explains my attachment to it. In my defense however, it worth saying that every lover who has shared my bed has both teased me about it but also fought me for it.

Lincoln was right to hold those over 40 responsible for their faces, but even babies can be judged by the things they love. The same is obviously true about our species. (Continue Reading Part 5)
Shell Silverstein, The Giving Tree (1964); detail of recent Tree of Life

Saturday, September 11, 2010

World Trade Center 1995, Eid 2010

John Powers, untitled block  arrangement (1995)

I woke up this morning to the names of the dead being read on the local NPR station - I was shocked how deeply this annual ritual continues to move me. This year the anniversary coincides with the Muslim celebration of Eid, and is marred by a bigoted protest against a proposal to build a Mosque and cultural center two blocks north of the World Trade Center site. I found the photo posted above recently and had planned to post it without comment first thing this morning, but instead ended up spending a beautiful clear day in front of my computer writing and thinking about the attacks, the shameful war against Iraq that was made in their wake, and the recent protests that have shocked and shamed me, but mostly what it means to me to be a New Yorker.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

“Dick, Dick, Dick, Dick; Dick, Dick, Dick.” - Part 3 "Beware the Jabberwock, my son!"

Peter Jackson's, Lord of The Rings (2001)
(Return to Part 2)Despite the fact that I was never a Tolken fan - or even much into fantasy, I saw Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, on opening night in in Imax. I went because a couple of my close friends at the time were long time fans of the books. For the most part I had great time, although I remember thinking that if they didn't leave Rivendale soon I might puke celtic knots, and I could have done with a few less tears (those Hobbits love a good cry). Clearly a lot of the film was not aimed at my hard-edged scifi self. My Tolken fan-boy friends meanwhile were hugely pleased, and after the film wanted only to discuss Jackson's fidelity to the source material. I caused no end of annoyance when I hijacked the post-cinema conversation by insisting that the elephantine Cave Troll had been rendered with an enormous swinging cock: "How could you miss it?" I wanted to know, "It was as big as a God damn Hobbit!"

Friday, September 3, 2010

“Dick, Dick, Dick, Dick; Dick, Dick, Dick.” - Part 2: Mapplethorpe

Robert Mapplethorpe, Louise Bourgeois ( 1982), Terrae Motus - Dennis with Flowers, (1983)
(Return to Part 1)

The photographer Robert Mapplethorpe is most famous for his impropriety, which is not entirely fair. He was part of a generation that brought B&W chemical photography into the mainstream of the art world (color and digital prints would come later). He will forever be remembered however for being one of the first to introduce hard-core S&M to the general public.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

“Dick, Dick, Dick, Dick; Dick, Dick, Dick.” - Part 1: Michelangelo & Rodin

Michelangelo, David (1504); Greg Mottola's Superbad, (2008)
At a party I attended during high school, someone had brought a porn film. It was a mixed crowd, in the mid-1980s, VHS had made porn a lot easier to get your hands on, but it was still relatively rare. I remember the boys and girls were all uncomfortable, no one wanted to be mistaken for a prude, but no one wanted to seem too interested either. One of the older, more confident guys at the party pointed out that the guy in the movie had a really ugly dick. One of the younger, cockier wits was right there with the question: “How many dicks have you seen?” “One,” answered the senior without hesitation, “and it’s beautiful.” Beauty is not the sorts of thing men normally brag about when talking about their dicks – usually size is all that matters.