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I saw my first installation by Ghanain-born sculptor El Anatsui at the De Young Museum in San Francisco. I came back from that trip and posted about that exquisite object–part textile, part tactile sculpture, made of bottle caps and wire. Since then he was featured at the Venice Biennale and is now getting well deserved attention everywhere. For New Yorkers, good news: The Metropolitan Museum has purchased a gorgeous piece, “Between Earth and Heaven,” which will be featured in a show later this year. (To see a short video of the piece being installed, go to this New York Sun link.)

Here are a few images from a show at London-based October Gallery.

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Nukae?

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Nane

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Brookline Massachusetts, December 14th

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View from my front door

Yesterday was the first snowstorm of this winter season. I love the quality of the light, the way the sound of a city changes, the disruption of life, the patterns of tires and feet, the way a neighborhood becomes unfamiliar and redefined, how everything is conjoined in a commonality.

Snowstorms remind me why I felt comfortable leaving my childhood home in California to spend my adult life on the East Coast. Snow is a powerful reminder of our wee human role in the grand scope of things. Nature speaks, and the only sensible response is to go inside and relish the simple gifts of a roof and warmth. It also alludes to one of my favorite themes in mythology, that small things can change everything. In the Sumerian story of Queen Inanna, she is saved from her imprisonment in hell by fingernail clippings. Because they are small and insignificant, they can get past the gates of Hell unnoticed and return her to her earthly throne. Once again, a billion tiny flakes of frozen water can stop the flow of life for millions of people. To quote one of my favorite bloggers, Will Owen of Aboriginal Art & Culture: an American eye, humility is a very complex virtue.

There are two poems I love on days like this. The Stevens poem is probably the most famous short poem (and only one sentence) in the English language. Even memorized, I marvel at its complexity. The poem by Strand is simple but profound. Enjoy.

The Snowman

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

–Wallace Stevens

Snowfall

Watching snow cover the ground, cover itself,
cover everything that is not you, you see
it is the downward drift of light
upon the sound of air sweeping away the air,
it is the fall of moments into moments, the burial
of sleep, the down of winter, the negative of night.

–Mark Strand

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Moroccan calligraphy, 19th century (courtesy of BibliOdyssey)

I know many of you are regular readers of 3 Quarks Daily and the fascinating posts by Elatia Harris. But for anyone who may be a newcomer here, run, don’t walk your way to her latest foray into the extraordinary blog, BibliOdyssey.

In her words: “One of my guilty pleasures is visiting BibliOdyssey — there’s a gorgeous new post almost every other night — a site devoted to visual Materia Obscura. Be it 12th century sky maps, illuminated manuscripts, or the drawings of a ship’s artist on a voyage to the South Pacific in the early 1800’s, you can trust BibliOdyssey to yield up something fantastic that you haven’t already seen.”

When Elatia first told me about this site I was enchanted. How fitting to now find out that the very cool English design group Fuel has published a book based on these breathlessly beautiful images assembled by the mysterious blogmaster, Paul K. The introduction is by Dinos Chapman, one half of the Chapmans, art brothers extraordinaire. For those of you in Europe, you can buy the book right now through Fuel. According to Amazon, it will be a few more weeks before it is available in the US. You heard it here: It will be everybody’s favorite holiday gift, to get or to give.

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Georg von Welling, 1719 (courtesy of BibliOdyssey)

Thank you to so many of you who have shared your condolences for the passing of my mother. The gathering of her large family and many friends this past weekend did bring a sense of completion. A woman of strong opinions right to the end, she had requested that all seven of her children speak at her service, which we did. I was proud to be part of her unruly gaggle of grown children who will never run out of endearing anecdotes to share about her and who she was in her life.

I spent one day alone with the Great Salt Lake. This enormous salten sea west of Salt Lake City has no outlet, so the salt content is eight times that of sea water. It is an ecosystem like no other I know. Every section of its edges–which can fluctuate dramatically year to year–has a different tonality and feel.

The remains of Saltair, a once elegant 19th century resort, are on the dry, sandy southern shore. The Bonneville Salt Flats are barren and endless.

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Saltair resort, built in 1893

Along the eastern side, the Nature Conservancy has built Shoreline, with boardwalks that venture deep into the grasses of the wetland habitat that is home for millions of migratory birds.

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Grasses along the eastern shore of the Great Salt Lake

Also on the east is Antelope Island, a landscape more moon-like than earthy.

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Antelope Island looking west

To the north, at the end of a very long and very potholed dirt road, is one of the icons of earth art, the infamous Spiral Jetty built by Robert Smithson in 1970. The northern shore of the lake near the jetty is rocky and the color of the water is decidedly pink. On a visit a few years ago, I found the rocks of the jetty encrusted with dazzlingly white crystallized salt. The jetty had disappeared below high lake water for 20 years, and its reemergence was big art world news. But like everything in this complex ecosystem, nothing stays the same. The naked rock has its own boldness set in that field of pink water. Who knows what I will find on my next trip out there.

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Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty

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Pink water

Most Utahns wax rhapsodic about hiking and skiing in the mountains, or venturing down into the sandstone of Southern Utah and Lake Powell.

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Wasatch Mountains dusted in snow in October(!)

The beauty of the lake is austere and unconventional. It is rarely mentioned by people as a geographic treasure in a state full of many beautiful landscapes.

For me, the attraction has always been strong. My grandfather had a farm near the eastern shore, and I remember how reverentially he watched the shorebirds come and go every year. I camped in the original Saltair ruins before it was torched by a fire in November of 1970. And my pilgrimages out to the Spiral Jetty, complete with a stop off at a roadside hot spring, have become my touchstone for connection with the earth that made my mother, and therefore the earth that made me. Perhaps the Lake is now a sanctuary stand in for my now deceased mother, a thought that brings me deep peace.

Every once in a while a comment made on this blog is so good it needs to be called out, front and center. That’s true of a comment made by one of my favorite bloggers, the author of Joe Felso: Ruminations, in response to the posting about Roger Kimball’s article in The New Criterion, directly below. As always, his insights inspire and his language clarifies:

A great article. Thanks for pointing it out. I’m a pluralist too, and this jeremiad seemed a little mean-spirited—though you have to wonder how a jeremiad could avoid being so.

Still, the definition of art he prefers—”mastery of a craft in order to make objects that gratify and ennoble those who see them”—does arouse some nostalgia in me for a time when pleasing the senses (instead of exciting, repelling, or rebuking them) wasn’t hopelessly naive.

In poetry, the modernists are responsible for art that is “indistinguishable from the verbal noise that accompanies it,” but that has done little to change public taste and much to discredit poetry as obdurate and pretentious.

The real casualty in “the domestication of deviance, and its subsequent elevation as an object of aesthetic” is, as Kimball so smartly points out, art itself.

And I would call it, as he does, a tragedy, except that art seems finally invulnerable to our fashions. Some artists will always be immune or, more accurately, attuned to contemporary modes AND eternal ones.

Chris Jordan’s photographic works are extremely memorable. He knows how to create retinal appeal to be sure, but he also packs a political wallop. Some of you may know of his photographs of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, In Katrina’s Wake: Portraits of Loss from an Unnatural Disaster, published earlier this year.

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Circuit boards

Another of his series, “Intolerable Beauty”, explores the country’s overlooked underbelly of the abandoned, forgotten and discarded. As Jordan says, “Exploring around our country’s shipping ports and industrial yards, where the accumulated detritus of our consumption is exposed to view like eroded layers in the Grand Canyon, I find evidence of a slow-motion apocalypse in progress. I am appalled by these scenes, and yet also drawn into them with awe and fascination. The immense scale of our consumption can appear desolate, macabre, oddly comical and ironic, and even darkly beautiful; for me its consistent feature is a staggering complexity.”

Jordan has a new show, “Running the Numbers,” now on view at Von Lintel Gallery in New York. In this new series, Jordan goes after American consumerism:

This series focuses on contemporary American culture through the unassailable lens of statistics. Each intricately detailed and astounding image, assembled from thousands of smaller photographs, portrays a specific quantity of a particular object: 15 million sheets of office paper (demonstrating five minutes of paper use), 1.14 million paper bags (the number used every hour) and so on. Images representing these quantities have a different and more lasting effect than the raw numbers alone, bypassing the numbing effect of facts and figures and giving viewers a visceral sense of the dizzying enormity of our society.

These large-scale works perform dual roles as compelling visual images and as invitations for viewers to reflect on their roles and responsibilities as individuals in hypermodern American mass culture.

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Cell phones

Von Lintel Gallery , in Chelsea (NYC), June 14 to July 30.

For more images, visit Jordan’s website.

Thank you to Jill Fineberg for sending me this link.

The New York Times’ website has a clip from Michael Kimmelman who is reporting on the Venice Biennale. He talks about feeling bored by the work at first, but the longer time he spent looking the more he liked what he saw. I was moved by his account of the Gonzalez-Torres installation:

Mr. Storr [commissioner for the exhibit] has also picked two works by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, the Cuban-born American who (posthumously) represents the United States. His pavilion, put together by Nancy Spector of the Guggenheim, is the biennale’s most elegant by far. Gifted beyond reason at turning hard-nosed Minimalism into humble, humane art, Mr. Gonzalez-Torres (1957-96) gets the tribute he deserves. I returned a few times to a sepulchral white room in the pavilion where a rectangular carpet of licorice candies (you may take one if you wish) evokes a gravesite beneath a rectangle of scrimmed skylight. My heart leapt.

The Times also published a bigger and even better shot of the tapestried structure by El Anatsui which I couldn’t resist posting here. (For more about this go to Slow Painting and the posting from June 14th, “Tessellated, Lumpy, Glittering.”)

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Kimmelman’s final comment struck me as apropos to what I’ve been able to glean from his reporting as well as some other bloggers on site:

This is quiet art. Much of this biennale murmurs, it doesn’t shout. The art world these days often bellows and struts. I doubt this biennale will be recalled as groundbreaking or dynamic , but it is an independent show, strong in its convictions.

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(Image courtesy of Seraphin Gallery)

Natalie Alper’s show at the Seraphin Gallery in Philadelphia was scrumptous. Big, lush strokes of metalic pigmented acrylic ribbon across a subtle underlayer of graphite marked canvas. And as her last painterly gesture, she sets this juicy field back just a bit from us by marking the surface with a loose net of horizontal and vertical scoring. The colors–rich blues, greens and coppers–are earth tones at their most bedazzling.

I’m a long time fan of Seraphin Gallery and of Alper’s work. A well known star on the Boston art scene, Alper’s work just gets better and better.

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Ferrofluid with permanent magnets underneath
(Image courtesy of Felice Frankel)

Here are two provocative examples of morphing developments in photography, especially in the age of digital (and signficantly, nearly cost free and unlimited) options.

The first features Felice Frankel, author of Envisioning Science. Frankel has come a long way in bringing meangingful visual imaging into the lab and classroom. While her images are accurate and not manipulated, they are more powerful because she has made conscious compositional and color decisions.

From an article about Frankel in the New York Times:

With her help, scientists have turned dull images of things like yeast in a dish or the surface of a CD into photographs so striking that they appear often on covers of scientific journals and magazines. According to George M. Whitesides, a Harvard chemist and her longtime collaborator, “She has transformed the visual face of science…”

“We started talking about how one represented science on the blackboard,” [Whitesides] recalled, “and at some point she made the remark that she thought we did it badly and I said, ‘Well, you show us how to do it better,’ and we were off and running…”

Since then, Dr. Whitesides said, “her impact on scientific communication has been very large, in the way science talks to science and science talks to the world outside science.”

One of Frankel’s most famous images of a ferrofluid (see above) was enhanced when she placed a yellow post it note beneath the slide. It didn’t change the science, but it made the image much more dramatic and visually memorable. It was made into a poster and has become a ubiquitous scientific image.

Frankel is cautious about claims that her work makes her an artist as well as a scientist. More from the Times article:

When people call Felice Frankel an artist, she winces.

In the first place, the photographs she makes don’t sell. She knows this, she says, because after she received a Guggenheim grant in 1995, she started taking her work to galleries. “Nobody wanted to bother looking,” she said.

In the second place, her images are not full of emotion or ideology or any other kind of message. As she says, “My stuff is about phenomena.”

Phenomena like magnetism or the behavior of water molecules or how colonies of bacteria grow — phenomena of nature. “So I don’t call it art,” Ms. Frankel said. “When it’s art, it’s more about the creator, not necessarily the concept in the image.”

But Whitesides and other scientists may not agree. “She has a wonderful sense of design and color. It is hard to say she is not an artist,”Whitesides said.

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The surface of a CD is compared to a player piano roll
(Image courtesy of Felice Frankel)

The other phenom is finding out that what I have always done with a camera, even before the advent of digital technology, has a name. Miksang is a Tibetan word that means “good eye.” It comes from the dharma art teachings of the late meditation master Chögyam Trungpa, specifically his teachings on the nature of perception.

From Robert Genn’s newsletter:

The art of Miksang was begun as a meditational tool by Shambhala Buddhists, but it has implications for painters and other creative people. The idea is to find joy and awareness by attending to the minor and seemingly insignificant–the colours, patterns and textures that exist in the close-up world…Shambhalas think widespread use might lead to more compassionate and enlightened societies.

What value does Miksang have for creative folks? Obviously, Miksang makes for pause, reflection and quiet centering. By increasing awareness, one builds a feeling of wonder and kinship with the overlooked. But its real value is in seeing design and the subtlety of colour. To the discriminating eye
the macro world is a minor symphony. Looking through a viewfinder and making decisions hone the ability to find the larger compositions. It’s all about the acquired skills of looking and seeing. Buddhist or not, this art can be performed at any time and any place.

There are over 3,000 images tagged as Miksang on Flickr. I probably have three times that many images of my own in the photo boxes in my closet and as digital files on my computer.

Like Monsieur Jourdain in Moliere’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme who is surprised to learn that he had been speaking prose all his life, I have no problem with Miksang as the name for a never ending fascination with the play of light on a wall, with a suggestion of cosmic dust in beach sand, or the universe of color in the bark of a tree.

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Alain de Botton is a witty, well honed writer (his books include How Proust Can Change Your Life and The Art of Travel) so settling into an uninterrupted read of his most recent book, The Architecture of Happiness, was something to look forward to. De Botton is not an architect or an art critic per se, so the book is more the musings of a thoughtful mind on buildings, interiors, emotions, comfort, beauty and meaning. His insights are poignant, personal and accessible, and there is no requirement to be conversant with architectural lexicon.

Here’s a sample:

Taking architecture seriously therefore makes some singular and strenuous demands upon us. It requires that we open ourselves to the idea that we are affected by our surroundings even when they are made of vinyl and would be expensive and time-consuming to ameliorate. It means conceding that we are inconveniently vulnerable to the colour of our wallpaper and that our sense of purpose may be derailed by an unfortunate bedspread. At the same time, it means acknowledging that buildings are able to solve no more than a fraction of our dissatisfactions or prevent evil from unfolding under their watch. Architecture, even at its most accomplished, will only ever constitute a small and imperfect (expensive, prone to destruction and morally unreliable), protest against the state of things. More awkwardly still, architecture asks us to imagine that happiness might often have an unostentatious, unheroic character to it, that it might be found in a run of old floorborads or in a wash of morning light over a plaster wall–in undramatic, frangible scenes of beauty that more us because we are aware of the darker backdrop against which they are set.


Fragment of a building by one of my favorite architects, Shigeru Ban