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Ora sono ubriaco d'universo. (Ungaretti)

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Aubrey Beardsley, “The Death of Pierrot” (1896)

Aubrey Beardsley, "The Death of Pierrot" (1896)

Aubrey Beardsley, “The Death of Pierrot” (1896)

The clown’s passing is not unremarkable. “The thinness of [Beardsley’s] tragically elegant lines suggest the breaking off of everything” (1).

The lines are indeed everything. Death comes into the room stealthily, majestically, in four dressed as though they left a masquerade or performance. Supple lines convey their agility and figures, their easy confidence comparable to how power suits a horse. Pierrot’s head sinks, but is solidly composed. Dotted lines define his outfit as well as the lace curtains. All guises and covers are unraveling; the spider silk the fineness evokes is useless. Death himself travels lightly, smiling, insisting on our respect – telling us to be quiet – as he pays his. He is the only true measure of who we are, as the opinions of others are nowhere to be found here. And he takes our guises, our laughter, our performance in a role seriously. A self-confrontation all of us fear is final, but gentler than one would expect. It’s as if we’ve been living with death the whole time.

Notes

1) Jed Perl, “Antoine’s Alphabet: Watteau and His World,” p. 28. Many thanks to Perl for bringing to my attention this magnificent work of art. His observations form a basis for my own and are mingled with mine. His discussion of the Beardsley can be found on pages 25-28.

On Stuff

For H.M.W.

For me, Jerry Seinfeld’s stand-up on Jimmy Fallon was funny, though marked by a peculiar darkness. At first, it seemed a fairly typical look at how ridiculous materialism is. Fallon had just handed out flat-screen tv’s to the audience. Seinfeld asserted this more a problem than a blessing, as most of the audience already possesses flat-screens. He then went on to say our whole lives are bringing objects home and turning them into garbage. How “garage,” where items once banished never find their way back, must be cognate with “garbage.” How nowadays, he’s happy to hear at funerals that someone wants to be buried with their stuff: “Take your crap with you.”

Like all of us, comedians tend to become more bitter as they get older. There are exceptions. Joan Rivers was so awesomely caustic that it didn’t matter how old she got. George Burns spoke of Gracie so quietly, so matter-of-factly, you didn’t quite realize how grateful he was for his time with her until well after he was done. The exceptions, I think, prove the power of the rule. Someone said you pretty much have to be psychotic to be a good comedian, and that might be correct. Strong, biting jokes are more than shameless. They spell things out so starkly that resentment, disgust, self-righteousness are only a degree away from being thought a natural response.

Disgust, of course, is anything but natural. Comedy at its best, comedy at its worst, reinforces the power of conventionality. There are some very notable exceptions to this. Still, Seinfeld’s above case doesn’t prove one. A lot of us say we want to simplify. We laugh and cry at hoarders on television, all while skirting the edge of becoming one ourselves. Obnoxiously, we impose “simplification” on everyone else. Everyone else is materialistic, and thus they’re holding us back from a cleaner, less-stressed, safer life.

This would be the most trivial of discussions if it weren’t for the fact I can recall relatives telling me to throw out books I was reading at the time. I think we can all relate stories where “cleaning” was really code for stop what you’re doing. Stop what you’re working towards. Throw what’s different away. Our materialism so thorough that it is manifest in our response to it. We don’t know why what we have is valuable, we don’t care to know what’s worth building or possessing. So we attack the idea of possession itself, as if life can be lived without objects. Or lived with very few objects that are disposable, yet almost sacred in their conception.

Either way, our response is about control. It probably is unhealthy to pretend it concerns anything else. A dark, biting tone makes Seinfeld’s cynicism look serious, but what exactly is he cynical about? That someone could do something, or make something of value, is what I feel has been buried in our day and age. It sounds strange to say this, as it looks like we celebrate achievement in so many ways. But if you asked me to write the history of our age, I’d show example after example of how ungrateful and uncharitable we are. We don’t mean to be this way; it’s a kind of ignorance at work. In order to appreciate something, we’d have to let it speak to us, at least pretend to take it seriously. Throwing away or buying objects mindlessly makes us secondary to stuff. Understanding how an object comes to be a possession, how other people possess or don’t possess – I can’t say that’s wisdom. I can say it’s wiser.

Exhibition: “Bouquets,” French Still-Life Painting from Chardin to Matisse

“Bouquets” runs from October 26, 2014 to February 8, 2015 at the Dallas Museum of Art.

1. That morning, the job interview did not happen. I was misled, to say the least.

I walked to Starbucks. While there, I tried to read. To my credit, there was poetry. There was history. There was also the loud self-praise – I’m sorry, “conversation” – a nearby douchebag directed at a lawyer. D-bag was a graduate of a very fine school, afterwards serving in the military in a leadership role. “Oozing charm from every pore, he oiled his way across the floor:” sure, you love Bogart movies, especially when you’re talking to an older, established gentleman who dresses like he’s from The Maltese Falcon. Sure, you love the South, especially when talking to someone who’s lived here his whole life. Etc.

I thought my stop at the Dallas Museum of Art would be brief. I did want to spend a day downtown, I didn’t want to waste being dressed up on my day off. But I imagined I’d be outdoors more, walking to various cafes, sampling food and coffee, burning through money I don’t have.

Bouquets was $8 admission. You’d think that since I’m reading a book on Van Gogh, that alone would prompt me to go see his work. Truth is, as soon as the attendant at the museum said they had floral still life on display, I paid. I know nothing about still life: Why would artists ever feel the need to paint a bunch of flowers?

It’s almost a ridiculous question. To try and answer it is to enter an entirely different world. To talk about memento mori paintings or the symbolism various flowers have is to scratch the surface. The use of symbols, or even confronting death, does not make sense without trying to imagine the mind housing such concerns.

2. An ancient painter is said to have depicted grapes so lifelike that birds couldn’t help but peck at them. One might be dismissive of such artistry, finding it more of an attempt to grasp power rather than meaning. In such a vein, you could look at Gerard van Spaendonck’s “Basket of Flowers on an Alabaster Pedestal” (1785) as decadent. The flowers are so varied, of so many colors, lines, and textures, that it is quite a feat he keeps every form meticulously distinct. All around, birds, butterflies, and insects try to make a home of the display. They can’t. On the pedestal itself, a relief where someone seems to be placing a bouquet to honor something divine. There may be more to the story – a Cupid and Psyche reference? – but I wonder if the theme could be how inadequate our attempts to be stewards of nature are. Our artifice is beautiful, whether well-wrought containers or well-placed flowers. The painting seems to know it is more style than substance.

Adele Riche’s “Flowers with Green and Red Grapes” (1831) I think far smarter. The prominence of the backs of the flower heads, the leaves not just marginalized for the bloom. My eye felt drawn to the fruit, as if it were entirely continuous with the large, vivid blossoms. The fruit reveals itself to be very much a flowering.

There are painters utterly in love with their technique, painters who skillfully use artifice, and virtuosi who maybe understand too deeply how their techniques work. Baudelaire, I learned in the exhibit, was utterly dismissive of a school of painting from Lyon. He called it the “penitentiary of painting – that part of the known world where they manage the infinitely small details best.” To that end, consider Antoine Berjon’s “Fruit and Flowers in a Wicker Basket” (1810). He groups what he paints so as to both enhance the image and reveal his ability to manipulate our eyes. The coarse leaves are next to coarser gourds; lustrous white wicker stands near a lustrous pinecone, while various grapes display different colors but a similar sheen. Flowers in the basket, again, are organized by color, sometimes forming lines of pinks and whites, other times fields of blue and purple, orange and peach.

Berjon does not show any subtlety about the surfaces of things. Indeed, I think he unwittingly made a comment about philosophy. All the surfaces prod one to ask what is inside. The wicker basket is both open and closed. In either case, it is filled with stems. That might be Berjon’s answer to what we get in life beyond images: only groupings of them. I can’t say he’s wrong. I can say, in this case, there’s a cynicism at work Baudelaire was right to deride.

3. Delacroix’s “Still Life with Dahlias” (1833) is one of the unsung gems of this exhibition, but perfectly placed. After seeing so many paintings too carefully planned, too well-made, one witnesses an organic unity that impresses the eye, compels a movement.

Degas’ “Portrait of Estelle Musson Degas” (1872)
also has an unfinished feel to it. There is considerable debate about whether it was simply left undone or meant to be completed later. It’s hard to describe its power. Her features emerge from the blocky, half-painted canvas. Their emergence coincides with her action of putting the bouquet together. The flowers themselves look a lot less defined than her face and hands, but I think they’re more defined by their color, their vibrance. Their form not so important as what they are.

Manet’s “Flowers in a Crystal Vase” (1882) must be seen to be believed. From a room away, the impression is of real flowers in a crystal vase. Up close, he’s used so few brushstrokes that the nearly bare canvas constitutes part of the crystal. The painting is one of his last, and one wonders about the scope of a vision where mastery of technique serves to make us think it purely a function of the mind’s eye.

Similarly, the Van Gogh paintings are a pilgrimage unto themselves. He does not waste a millimeter of canvas. I have plenty of notes in my journal about them. There will be many more. I don’t know that I’m going to be teaching any time soon. I do know what I will be doing in the meantime.

Maiko Shioda, “let me dream”

With thanks to Mark Alonzo and Coco Rico

Sharing one’s dreams is very risky.  It could be interpreted as an act of incredible shamelessness or bravery. Maiko Shioda’s reflections on her dreams are vulnerable and searching. They’re an invitation to reconstruct pointed pains and doubts, acknowledging how we’ve grown. They come towards the viewer, encompassing him or her; the web weaved has a tender strength.

Artist: Maiko Shioda. From her MFA exhibition "let me dream" (2014). Photo credit: Mark Alonzo

Artist: Maiko Shioda. From her MFA exhibition “let me dream” (2014). Photo credit: Mark Alonzo

Shioda uses her gallery space as a dreamscape. A dark forest composed of black sheer fabric, forming a path one can walk through, haunted by black bows resembling flying, nocturnal creatures. She uses it as a shop: gloves and mask and cards encased as if they would be in a curio shop. A museum: a dress stained, as if by blood, inviting confrontation. Everyday experience, purposely overloaded with meaning.

Artist: Maiko Shioda. From her MFA exhibition "let me dream" (2014). Photo credit: Mark Alonzo

Artist: Maiko Shioda. From her MFA exhibition “let me dream” (2014). Photo credit: Mark Alonzo

Her drawings on the walls attempt to see how we got here. They toy with narrative. A section she declares about forgiving and forgetting startles most – it may be a beginning. A snake-like head has features that resemble a dress. Another drawing features the same dress with what seem to be two snake heads emerging. The dress has legs and arms; it moves meekly and confusedly toward a picnic basket. It looks like there is an identification of the self with both snakes and mice. Later, a series showing a girl wandering through an ocean of hair. She both witnesses and dissolves into that ocean. A mouse that appears upon it is eaten by a snake. A “final” series shows a hand emerging, desperately reaching toward an overwhelming moss. The letters “grot” – a snide remark about growth and rot? – sit in a fabric flower beside it. A snake in a dress, crying, tearing apart a dress full of hair concludes.

Artist: Maiko Shioda. From her MFA exhibition "let me dream" (2014). Photo credit: Mark Alonzo

Artist: Maiko Shioda. From her MFA exhibition “let me dream” (2014). Photo credit: Mark Alonzo

The overwhelming feeling is of literally tearing oneself apart, but Shioda ends on what I think is a hopeful note. If I’m right about a narrative sequence, it seems the artifacts emerge from the drawings. The drawings are simply in pencil. But the stained dress shows color and a form that is not a mere representation like the drawings before. The color of the gloves and mask is lavender, a flowering of sorts.

Maiko Shioda’s “let me dream” can be seen at the Irving Arts Center in Irving, TX from Mar 08- Apr 06, 2014. Website with venue infornation,

George Romney, “Young Man with a Flute”

George Romney, "Young Man with a Flute" (c. 1760-1770). Viewable at the Dallas Museum of Art

George Romney, “Young Man with a Flute” (c. 1760-1770). Viewable at the Dallas Museum of Art

The cutest and saddest thing happened while I was staring at this. Some little girl was being led by her Dad past this painting. She slowed a bit and attempted to read the caption – got the name “George” said correctly, but struggled with “Romney.” Dad dragged her past and put her in front of another painting, which he proceeded to explain badly on two counts. First, given the girl’s age, his terrible criticism was over her head. Second, his terrible criticism. The girl would have been better off with a coloring book in the parking lot as opposed to being forcefed culture by someone who barely had any.

Anyway. There are a lot of painterly, technical virtues to the above painting. The texture of the wood on the flute and surface; the use of brown generally; the embellishment on the gold; the precision of the cuff; the folds on the coat and the quiet illumination of one side of the painting. I think the curators said this was an early Romney, and I’d guess that showing off a mastery of technique was crucial to getting more patrons.

Is there a theme? I’m not sure. It might be that the kid was accidentally captured a bit insecure, a bit overwhelmed by everything. His pose is more awkward than thoughtful – look at how his hand doesn’t really rest on his chin, how his gaze is that of trying to be relaxed. I’d imagine the boy’s mom said “omg you look so cute this is the best picture ever,” pinched his cheeks, put it in the dining room to be seen every day. But maybe this is a portrait of someone who really could do without the artifice, without the expectations, doing something else entirely.

Coco Rico, “Te Cantare Mis Recuerdos” (I Will Sing You My Memories)

The best art comes from the heart. Coco isn’t shy about saying “this is what I meant” when talking about her work. It’s not because she has an answer no one else has. Rather, just as books belong to their readers, art belongs to its audience, and she’s more than willing to be part of a larger conversation.

That conversation started in her recent exhibition Te Cantare Mis Recuerdos (I Will Sing You My Memories) a peculiar way. Her works are small, iconic windows into life as remembered. Their miniature size made the gallery’s whiteness, brightness, cleanliness loom large. It was a perfectly appropriate accent for recollections ranging from nostalgic to wistful, centered on family, growth, and loss.

I don’t want to say too much about the religious imagery and quiet spirituality attending these works. After all, Coco has said of Supersticion I that it concerns the idea of getting warts in your eyes if you watch a dog poop:

Supersticion I

Coco Rico, “Supersticion I.” Photo credit: Mark Alonzo.

Supersticion I reminded me of the Masonic imagery on a dollar bill. Something about it is elegant, creepy, fundamental – and yet it focuses on what might be considered silly and childlike. A bit more adolescent is Supersticion III. Yeah, it is inspired by the idea of not cutting a baby’s hair before it ages one year. But it also seems to speak about changing our appearance to fit the time. You can’t really see it below, but some of the hairlike threads are words. It’s like we cut our own thoughts depending on the phases of the moon, all while the clock ticks:

Supersticion III

Coco Rico, “Supersticion III.” Photo credit: Mark Alonzo.

Two works about her mother really hit home, no pun intended. Vestida Por Mi Ama (Getting dressed by Mom) reminded me of my own experiences. Mom wanted to sew everything I wore. I get the feeling that for Coco, every attendance at a school dance felt weighted with the traditions of one’s homeland, the sweat and blood of one’s Mother. Too much to wear, but a beautiful machine:

Coco Rico, "Vestida Por Mi Ama"

Coco Rico, “Vestida Por Mi Ama.” Photo credit: Mark Alonzo.

Finally, a thought on what it means to be a parent, La Independencia De Mi Ama:

Coco Rico, "La Independencia De Mi Ama"

Coco Rico, “La Independencia De Mi Ama.” Photo credit: Mark Alonzo.

The feather and branch are stark; one creates something which has to be let go. All that’s left is debris of a sort, but it is quietly beautiful. Someone else’s potential is your sacrifice; what that means is your imagination.

On the Etruscan Pair of shields with head of Acheloos, on view at the Dallas Museum of Art

Art discussed in this post:

Pair of shields with head of Acheloos. Bronze. Etruscan, 6th c. BC. Lent by the Republic of Italy to the DMA: 135.2012.5-6

You can view the art here: Pair of shields with head of Acheloos

These shields were found in Etruscan tombs. On the one hand, it makes sense that a river god like Acheloos would be invoked in the tomb. As water gives life in this world, it can symbolize whatever life one could have after death. But water also speaks to malleability, change, and terror. Death’s finality is a weird, terrible thing that maybe only a god can truly see.

On that note, I wondered about the story of Hercules and Acheloos, which the curators used to introduce these shields. They fought over a woman; Acheloos, as the river, changed his shape to become a bull. His horn was broken off by Hercules and he was beaten. In order to get it back, he gave Hercules another “magic horn” (the curators’ words). Hercules took that other horn, gave it away, and it became the cornucopia.

I really don’t like that last part, that the magic horn became the cornucopia. That detail, for me, wrecks the story. What I asked myself while looking at these shields: did the story of the fighting inspire piety for Acheloos? It probably did. There should be some connection between the river god, death, and the trading of horns.

My speculation: Heracles should die contesting a river god about to impale him. That he survives means he has temporarily put off perishing and death’s sting. The “magic horn,” then, is knowledge of a sort and a trap. But it also links Acheloos and Hercules. To be an immortal beaten by a mortal is to know death. Acheloos has our pain in some sense. In another sense, he doesn’t, because we don’t understand our own pain. We just broke a horn off once and then mindlessly accepted another horn. Acheloos is present at the tomb because he is sympathetic. That he looks like he might charge on one shield – he won’t, it’s a tomb, after all – speaks to our failure and his.

On a Bell Krater and Oinochoe from the Spina necropolis, seen at the Dallas Museum of Art

Art discussed in this post, on loan to the Dallas Museum of Art:

Red Figure Bell Krater, featuring Theseus and Sinis.
Greek: Attic, 5th c. BC. From the Spina necropolis; attributed to the Sini Ferrara painter. On loan to the DMA from the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Ferrara, inv. 3066.

Red Figure Oinochoe, featuring Polynices offering a necklace to Eriphyle.
Greek: Attic, 435-430 BC. From the Spina necropolis; attributed to the Shuvalov painter. On loan to the DMA from the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Ferrara, inv. 2509.

Not the best picture, but the Oinochoe is at the extreme left. You can see Eriphyle reclining and some of Polynices. The Krater is central, and Theseus bending the tree, about to execute the naked robber, is pretty clear.

Theseus, about to kill one of the robbers famed for plaguing a road, will earn his initial fame as a hero. This robber, Sinis, either threw unsuspecting victims into the air with a bent pine or tore them in two. Theseus appears a well-dressed man, almost a gentleman. He wears a sun hat and a diadem; the robber is naked. The inscription only calls Theseus kalos, though: noble or beautiful, not a gentleman (also known as kalos kai agathos, noble and good).

Justice might be the outstanding question. Apollo or some kind of established, noble figure crowned with a laurel watches the execution. Even though I didn’t see the other side of the Krater fully (it is turned to the wall), I was told it was two men talking, and I glimpsed that one of them was dressed more like Apollo. I suspect there’s no justice here, just reputation and civilization. Apollo, god of music, gives us stories without which we are frightfully naked. Those stories hide a certain darkness. The expression on Sinis’ face is pained, terrified, human.

What’s on the Krater may make narrative sense and have narrative depth. On the Oinochoe, which pours wine, we could be dealing with one half of a story. Three figures are presented. Polynices, who robbed of his kingship of Thebes by his brother Eteocles, tries to conquer the city with the assistance of six other leaders. He is offering a necklace to a reclining Eriphyle. He does bribe her into goading her husband to war with Thebes, even though she knows her husband will die. And there’s a servant holding an (the?) Oinochoe and a Kylix, a drinking cup. As these objects were found in a tomb, part of a funeral banquet before burial, one wonders several things. First, whether there is a Kylix meant to go with the Oinochoe, giving another story to go along with this one. Second, while the servant holding these objects foreshadows the death of Polynices, Eriphyle’s husband, and Eriphyle herself, it also connects with the burial of whoever was rich enough to have these objects at their funeral. Who on earth wants to be buried with such a morbid, awful story? Polynices is vengeful, unpatriotic, and totally justified in his cause. Eriphyle is greedy, reckless, and hateful. The servant depicted is female, and maybe the two women can tell us about the potential complementary Kylix. A matching Kylix perhaps features Antigone and Ismene, sisters of the feuding brothers. Both would be mourning. One because of crazy, Polynices-like claims about family and the identification of death with justice. The other in mourning simply.

Everything I learned in life I learned from Lana Del Rey’s Twitter

soundtrack for this art project

5. Thank you so much to Yuri Milner for giving away millions at the breakthrough awards at NASA and bringing the world’s most outstanding physicists to our attention. Was incredible to see Sergey Brin and Mark and all of the deserving winners

YES. PHYSICS.

4. There was a child went forth every day;
And the first object he look’d upon, that object he became;
And that object became part of him for the day, or a certain part of the day, or for many years, or stretching cycles of years.

– Walt Whitman

He talked at length about receiving impressions from the world around us, impacts upon our senses, then our minds selectively filtering them, yielding useful information. She was skeptical. Maybe some objects dictate to us, never let us go.

3. Paris

I remember being rejected, walking those streets. It was a giant joke. There were so many people with real problems. What right did I have to feel bad in a rich, glamorous city?

2. Everything Was Beautiful And Nothing Hurt

The experience of nothingness.

1. You are, therefore I am

At first, a corny statement about love – adoring or being adored. At first.

On the Dallas Museum of Art’s “Alexandre Hogue: The Erosion Series”

To say Hogue was concerned with the Dust Bowl would be like saying Einstein was pretty smart – a gross, gross understatement. The curators note that the Dust Bowl wasn’t just a natural disaster. It was exacerbated to terrible heights by practices that didn’t make much sense except for making a quick buck. Long-term benefits and treating the land well were very distant considerations. The scale of devastation was something else to behold. Floods of sand that overwhelmed rail lines and buildings; swirls of dirt that blotted out the sun.

Hogue created iconic images to make these points. In Grim Reaper, the lines in the wood echo the torn landscape and turbulent ash that is the sky. The haunted face blows away, and the import is all too clear. We are the Grim Reaper unto nature and ourselves. Written into our very actions are the results.

Sometimes there’s a bit more subtlety on the artist’s part. Red Earth Canyon takes a bit of time to absorb, but one can’t help but eventually be disgusted by it. The colors make the landscape look fleshy and diseased. The human construction resembles a pox, a thoroughly unnatural condition.

Hogue overwhelms with lines. There are always repeating patterns of them, and it isn’t just a stylistic feature of the works in “The Erosion Series.” Rather, the immensity, scope, and awfulness of the disaster conveys itself to us in patterns. If we face a grave danger, we may see some kind of dark beauty, a semblance of order. There’s a reason why we can be deer in headlights, as we fixate on something.

Another thought I had about Alexandre Hogue while at the exhibit was the following. Ad after ad on television has candidate X proclaiming how much he fought Obama, followed by candidate Y saying how candidate X can’t be trusted since Y fought Obama more. There are Texas liberals, real ones, from generations ago. And if Hogue is any indication, they can be very thoughtful and talented. This state has some aspect of “blue” in it that’s of tougher stock than the cheap and thoughtless “red” I see at times nowadays.

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