Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Brand New Day

See the world in green and blue
See China right in front of you
See the canyons broken by cloud
See the tuna fleets clearing the sea out
See the Bedouin fires at night
See the oil fields at first light
And see the bird with a leaf in her mouth
After the flood all the colors came out

It was a beautiful day
Don't let it get away
Beautiful day

Touch me
Take me to that other place
Reach me
I know I'm not a hopeless case

What you don't have you don't need it now
What you don't know you can feel it somehow
What you don't have you don't need it now
Don't need it now
Was a beautiful day

–From “Beautiful Day” by U2

Annie, Alex, and I wish everyone a Happy New Year! In less than a month, a new president will be inaugurated in America and a new day will dawn on our country and the world. After so much darkness and destruction, it’s truly a beautiful day coming like the radiant light of Edvard Munch’s The Sun (above, from the Oslo University Aula decoration, 1911-1916). Yes, we did.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Merry Christmas

For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. Isaiah 9:6

Right after Thanksgiving each year, I gear up to get myself into the Christmas mood. If you pull up to a stoplight and see some nut singing at the top of his lungs to a CD of George Frideric Handel’s Messiah, especially “For Unto Us a Child Is Born…,” that might be me. I also like to mix in some Rat Pack. Bare Naked Ladies and Sarah McLachlan singing "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen/We Three Kings" has become a new favorite. Decorating the house and putting up the lights outside always seem like a pain at the time, but it’s worth it just to see how much Alex (above and below) enjoys all the preparations. Seeing Christmas through Alex’s eyes reminds me of what it was to be a little boy at Christmastime and what it is to believe in a wonderful world again.

Annie, Alex, and I wish everyone out there a Merry Christmas, Happy Hannukhah, Blessed Eid, and Happy Kwanza! May you all have a safe, healthy, and happy holiday wherever you are. Art Blog By Bob will be on holiday hiatus until after the New Year. See you in 2009!

Utopia in a Box

How fitting that Joseph Cornell, maker of his magic boxes, was born on Christmas Eve 1903, the day before the opening of boxes around the world. Cornell lived with his mother and disabled brother for most of his life on a street in Flushing, New York called Utopia Parkway. As an artist, Cornell brought together the tiny fragments of ordinary life and assembled them into a tiny utopia he neatly packaged into a box. Many critics like to lump Cornell in with the Surrealists, but I’ve always seen him more as a hyper-realist who distills the world around him into its essential essence. Cornell was the ultimate pack rat, collecting not only little bits and pieces to place into his artwork but also mentally collecting new obsessions that ranged across the whole gamut of culture, both high and low. Cornell’s Untitled (Penny Arcade Portrait of Lauren Bacall) (above, from 1945) came out of the artist’s obsession with the actress. I’m sure Cornell wished he could find the sultry starlet under his tree on Christmas morning, but his almost crippling shyness relegated him to living out his dreams through his box. In his Penny Arcade, Cornell could enshrine Bacall and make her his forever.

Cornell taught himself how to build his boxes. Art and art history were just two of the many subjects he taught himself from scratch, obsessing and possessing them before locking them away in his boxes. Untitled (Medici Princess) (above, from 1948) shows Cornell facing the art of the past and the ideal of beauty of the past. Cornell’s centuries-old Medici Princess serves as a neat contrast to Bacall’s contemporary femme fatale. I love Cornell’s boxes for just how transparently they show the workings of the artist’s mind. You can sit and look at them individually and follow how they “work” internally. Just when you think you understand one, you see another box, perhaps related to another subject entirely, and recognize how Cornell’s mind leapt from place to place. Cornell’s obsessiveness can become almost obsessively compelling by itself.

Cornell remains a confusing figure for the general art public, many of whom don’t see the big fuss of these little boxes of “junk.” Because of his withdrawn nature, Cornell never promoted his own work. At his death, even Cornell’s family had no clue as to his stature in the art world and almost destroyed his body of work if not for the intervention of a fan. When Cornell screened his 1936 collage film Rose Hobart, Salvador Dalí, king of self-promotion, railed against Cornell for “stealing” his idea, thus ending Cornell’s film experiments and driving the film itself underground for decades. To appreciate Cornell, you must follow him and be prepared to go anywhere, including the stars. Cornell’s late-career love of astronomy led him to create works such as Cassiopeia 1 (above, from 1960) in which he attempts to stuff the very universe into his tiny boxes. A great deal of art teaches us to reach for the stars, but Joseph Cornell’s art brings them down to earth and hands them to us like a present.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Non-Required Reading

As you may have guessed, I read too much. Reading about art is just one of my many, many obsessions. As if a house full of books (although, thankfully, not yet as bad as the house shown in Carl Spitzweg’s The Bookworm, above, from 1850) wasn’t enough, I find it endlessly fascinating and relaxing to wander book stores (both new and used) and any library I pass by. Here’s a list of some of the non—art-related books I found the most enjoyable reading in 2008, in random order:

Thich Naht Hahn. Living Buddha, Living Christ.

Not a new book, but one I’ve meant to read for years. Get your Zen on and see how Buddhism and Christianity can work together.

Salman Rushdie. The Enchantress of Florence: A Novel.

Rushdie’s latest, but far from his greatest (that would be Midnight’s Children or The Satanic Verses). Still, second-class Salman’s better than no Salman at all. Rushdie writes Magic Realism better than anyone else alive.

Haruki Murakami. What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.

My favorite Japanese novelist writing about my favorite form of exercise. Not just for runners or just for writers, Murakami beautifully links the mind—body experience of running and creativity with humor and strength that will inspire you to take on that next challenge.

Nicholson Baker. Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization.

You’ll never think of Winston Churchill or FDR in the same way again after reading Baker’s book, which uses contemporary source documents to dispel the myths that have formed around the last “good war.” A searing indictment of the Bush wars without mentioning his name even once.

Rick Perlstein. Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America.

A masterpiece of political analysis that proves how Nixon’s dirty fingerprints continue to soil the soul of American discourse today. A step-by-step look at the course of the culture wars that led the Republicans into power and, perhaps, into ruin.

Susan Jacoby. The Age of American Unreason.

A “cultural conservationist” penetrates to the heart of the anti-intellectualism of modern American society and its political roots. A good book to read in tandem with Perlstein’s Nixonland.

Vincent Bugliosi. The Prosecution of George W. Bush for Murder.

Another indictment of the Bush wars, this time set out by an actual prosecutor. Over the top, hyperbole-laden, and shrill, it’s still full of good sense and unforgettable images.

Bob Woodward. The War Within: A Secret White House History 2006-2008.

Not as much an enjoyable as a frustrating but, ultimately, vindicating read. Bob Woodward recognizes the shift in the political winds eight years too late and tries to undo his three previous “Bush at War” books by telling the truth. Too little, too late, you hack.

Please feel free to share any of your own favorite art-related or non—art-related reads of 2008 in comments.

Monday, December 22, 2008

A Room of One’s Own

“A woman has no peace as an artist until she proves over and over that she won’t be eliminated,” Louise Bourgeois once said. Born December 25, 1911, Bourgeois turned the tables and did the eliminating in The Destruction of the Father (above, 1974). As a young girl, Bourgeois witnessed the psychic toll her father’s affairs had on her mother and dramatized the lasting effect it had on her in this piece. Closing in on a century of life, Bourgeois remains one of the most confrontational and psychologically interesting artists of either gender. Whereas Frida Kahlo illustrated the tumult of her mind in the hot medium of color and paint, Bourgeois reshapes the formative influences of her life into large sculptures that address her personal struggles against depression, agoraphobia, and other illnesses as well as her professional struggles against the male-dominated art world, including her art historian husband, Robert Goldwater. Frankly Freudian, Bourgeois sets up her father as a monster to be slain and as a symbol of the other figures standing in the way of her fulfillment as an artist and a woman.

Bourgeois strikes back at her mother as well. In a series of giant spider sculptures, including Maman (above, from 1999), Bourgeois takes an unconventional, complex look at motherhood. “My best friend was my mother,” Bourgeois once said, “and she was deliberate, clever, patient, soothing, reasonable, dainty, subtle, indispensable, neat and as useful as a spider… I shall never tire of representing her.” Sadly, Bourgeois neglects to include warm, loving, or nurturing in her list of adjectives to describe her mother, which leads to the cold efficiency of the spider as a symbol for the woman who enabled her father’s infidelity and its destructive influence over their family life. Maman rises thirty feet into the air and carries a sac filled with marble eggs beneath it—a slightly terrifying and repulsive image of motherhood. Bourgeois herself raised three young boys with Goldwater and came away with a harsh view of the woman’s role as mother. Bourgeois never convinced herself that life as a wife and mother was her destiny. Instead, she developed a conviction that art was her true path. “To convince others, you have to convince yourself,” Bourgeois told a friend in 1939, “and a conciliatory or even an unduly understanding attitude—in that it is inevitably superficial—is not helpful to creativity.” Bourgeois self analysis allowed her to develop a self faith that carried her through the tough times.

While raising her sons and longing to be part of the art world, Bourgeois’ home must have felt like a prison. Years later, she created a series of “Cell” sculpture installations, including Cell (Eyes and Mirrors) (above, from 1989-1993), that tried to recapture that feeling of entrapment. The flip side of that entrapment was Bourgeois’ agoraphobia, a fear of the world at large and the pressure of unknown possibilities, including failure. By placing eyes and mirrors in this particular “cell,” Bourgeois expresses her feelings of always being watched and judged by others and by herself—the face in the mirror. With great courage, Bourgeois broke free of her prison and convinced the face in the mirror that she had the strength within to face the world outside the confines of the home. Several international exhibitions in recent years have celebrated Bourgeois’ coming out party as it reaches its centennial as a step forward not just for the sculptress as an individual but for all women artists fighting for a room of their own.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Striking a Chord

When not drawing or painting, Paul Klee could most often be found playing his beloved violin. Born December 18, 1879, Klee played the violin in orchestras, reviewed concerts and musical theater for newspapers, and even married a pianist in his life-long love affair with music. In 1919, the still-single Klee painted The Bavarian Don Giovanni (above), in which he casts himself as Mozart’s libidinous Don Giovanni climbing a ladder surrounded by the names of the five women Klee was then conducting affairs with, several of whom were opera singers. Borrowing from Mozart’s opera, Klee personalizes the scene with his own affairs of the heart and creates a wholly new personal visual language. Critics try to tie Klee to movements such as Expressionism, Cubism, Surrealism, and even Orientalism, usually more out of proximity of time and place, but Klee’s art more often exists in a time and place of his own choosing. A close friend of Wassily Kandinsky, Klee taught with the great theorist at the Bauhaus but always seemed to have more of a personal theory cobbled together from the ideas of others than a coherent system to share with others. Ultimately, Klee worked in line and color, simplifying his art to a level of childlike grace as the world around him grew more darkly complex.

The Nazis forced Klee to resign his position at the Bauhaus in 1933, at the height of his creativity. Klee created more than five hundred works in that fateful year of 1933 despite picking up his life and moving to Switzerland. In 1935, Klee painted Walpurgis Night (above), the sanitized pagan ritual celebrating the end of winter and the coming of spring. Perhaps Klee allowed himself a moment of optimism, breathing the free air of Switzerland and thinking that the worst was behind him. Sadly, in 1937, the Nazis removed Klee’s work from German museums and listed him along with other modernists in the infamous "Degenerate Art" exhibition. Toward the end of his life, illnesses limited Klee’s productivity. In response, Klee simplified his art even further, creating works even more childlike in scope while still sophisticated in terms of line and color up until his death in 1940. Walpurgis Night is also the time when witches and the darkest beasts of Hell roam the earth as the split between the seasons is healed, so perhaps Klee also recognized the horror that lay ahead for him and Europe in 1935. Klee’s ability to convey different possibilities in a single image, all of which connect to his personal life, continues to make him a compelling artist.

For all the sadness of his last years, Klee is one artist whose story can never end on a sad note. Works such as The Goldfish (above, from 1925) speak of the joy and playfulness of an artist who found infinite pleasure in a line or color itself, no matter how simple. Klee expressed his sense of his own timelessness in his own epitaph: "I cannot be grasped in the here and now, for my dwelling place is much among the dead, as the yet unborn, slightly closer to the heart of creation than usual, but still not close enough." Klee never lost his faith in the power of beauty in the world, whether in art, music, or literature. Something as commonplace and absurd as a goldfish becomes a great treasure when seen through Klee’s eyes. Alfred Hitchcock once claimed that Klee was his favorite artist. The director who saw everyday reality and turned it on its head to shake out all the strange and brutal beauty clearly recognized a kindred spirit in the gentle violinist who charmed the ladies in his youth and charms the world even today.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Raiders of the Lost Art

When Indiana Jones cracked his bullwhip and declaimed “That belongs in a museum!,” I crusaded right beside him in spirit as he took some ancient treasure from the hands of the greedy bad guys. I’ve stood guilt-free before the Rosetta Stone and the Elgin Marbles (above) at the British Museum, gazed at the Venus de Milo and Nike of Samothrace in the Louvre, and wandered blissfully through the Roman and Greek galleries of the Met, wondering at the “one-stop-shopping-ness” of all these ancient cultures gathered together for the enjoyment of the West without thinking much of the sense of loss of the East, the source of all this culture. Sharon Waxman’s Loot: The Battle Over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World raises uncomfortable questions about who really owns the art of the past and who should be the stewards of that art in the future. The heated struggle for ownership has transformed art galleries in the Western world into virtual temples of doom as poorer source countries pressure powerful museums to relinquish items they have acquired and sustained for decades, if not longer. Waxman peoples that larger battleground with figures throughout art history such as Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, the “Elgin” of the Elgin Marbles, who wear the black or white hats of history depending on your perspective, but ultimately fall into a middle grey area that denies any clear resolution. One country’s art savior is another’s art stealer. “Should [these artworks] stay where they are,” Waxman asks, “exhibited and preserved with care, accessible to crowds of visitors from around the world? Or should they return to their countries of origin, whose demands for restitution have grown ever more vociferous, a chorus of dissatisfaction from across the ancient world?” Waxman asks the tough questions and honestly presents the tough, unsatisfying answers.

For many Westerners, the face of Egyptology and all ancient art is Zahi Hawass (above), Secretary-General of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, ubiquitous face on popular television archaeological documentaries, vocal activist for restitution, and, to his detractors, “hypemonger” and “the loosest cannon in the Egyptian government.” Hawass represents the pugnacious side of the restitution advocates. Waxman delicately explains how, for countries such as Egypt, “[t]he demand for restitution is a way to reclaim history, to assert a moral imperative over those who were once overlords.” Demands for the return of art originate not only from the injuries of the colonialist past but also from present resentment over the American military’s presence post-9/11 in the Middle East. As arrogant as the source countries can be in their demands, Waxman points out, “the responses of the Western nations have often betrayed an arrogance that has served to stoke the flames of resentment over trampled national dignity.” The battle over stolen treasures, Waxman proves, is over much more than the treasures themselves. And, yet, the “trampled national dignity” of source countries rarely translates into actual interest in antiquities. Waxman cites the example of Hawass’ own son, Sharif, who “like many young Egyptians, having searched for meaning and cultural identity, he found it in Islam, rather than in the country’s ancient pharaonic roots.” Colonialism trampled national dignity rooted in the ancient past so far underground that the Egyptians, Greeks, and other source nationalists of today no longer recognize it. Western museums that host millions of visitors yearly point toward the meager attendance numbers of Eastern museums as an argument against returning ancient art to source countries and, thus, effectively burying them once again.

Western museums don’t like to discuss how they got the treasures they have. In most cases, wall plaques don’t describe the journey from the source country to the museum at all. People such as Lord Elgin are acknowledged only due to their fame, or infamy. Waxman digs into the closets of museums such as the Louvre and the Met and pulls out all the skeletons. In 1820, the Dendera zodiac (above) was literally hacked from the ceiling of the Hathor temple at Dendera and transported to the Louvre, where it remains today. A sad replica, all in black, hangs where the original once did. The Louvre, however, refuses to return the original. “Deep in the DNA of the institution is this passionately held belief—valid, perhaps, but not unanimously believed—that the world should be grateful that the Louvre preserves and displays the great art of the world,” Waxman writes. Similarly, the Met admits no wrong. “The new chauvinism does a great disservice to mankind,” says the Met’s former director, Philippe de Montebello. In 1960, the Met knowingly purchased the Lydian Hoard from smugglers and only returned it to Turkey in 1993 after a long legal battle, just one of the many battles it has waged and continues to wage over ancient treasures. In 2003, de Montebello called the restitution debate “pure politics,… but we’ve lost, they’ve won, and the public has lost as a consequence.”

An earlier Met director, Thomas Hoving, now freely admits dealing in plundered art during his time there, including the Euphronios krater (above), which the Met only returned to Greece in 2008. When the Met paid $1 million USD in 1972 for the vase, looters ravaged ancient sites in search of new items to sell, placing much of the responsibility for the destruction of ancient culture squarely in the lap of the museums feeding the frenzy. Today, Hoving is not only a staunch restitutionist, but also the greatest advocate against the idea that Western museums serve humanity better through greater access to these treasures. “In the entire history of mankind, art was seen by specialists,” Waxman quotes Hoving. “The great masses seeing it doesn’t make them or it any better. So what? It’s a specious argument.” Personally, I find Hoving’s words repugnant, a case of extreme elitism in which the works of kings will always remain the works of kings and their “specialists,” forever cordoned off from the riff raff. Hoving represents the ugly side of the restitution argument, taking it to an extreme that few others follow. It’s hard to understand how someone who once helped assemble one of the great encyclopedic survey museums in the world now wants it all torn apart and hidden from “the great masses” who he feels can never appreciate them as well as he can, and should never be given the chance to try.

Perhaps the darkest chapter of Loot surrounds the strange case of downfall of Marion True and The J. Paul Getty Museum. Once the greatest champion of strict provenance for ancient art, True, the curator of antiquities at the Getty, found herself the target of restitutionists looking to reclaim such works as the gold wreath (above) some believe belonged to Philip II of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great. In a strange twist of fate, True found herself charged with stealing antiquities by both the Greek and Italian governments. “What happened to Marion True was a warning, a shot across the bow by source countries to the entire Western museum establishment,” Waxman writes. “Was Marion True a scapegoat or a scofflaw deserving of her fate? Perhaps she was both.” Restitutionists sent a clear signal that they would personally prosecute museum personnel, if necessary, with True as simply the first victim. The gold wreath now hangs in the Thessaloniki Archaeological Museum, just the beginning of a large-scale shaking down of the Getty’s collection that continues today. The entire True episode proves just how high the stakes have gotten in the battle for antiquities today.

By the end of Loot, Waxman seems as weary as her readers of the warfare. “The politics of ‘us versus them’ has to give way to a reaffirmation of the value of cultural exchange, and its real embrace by both sides,” Waxman concludes in an attempt to provide some solution to this multifaceted problem. “But what is required most of all is a desire to collaborate rather than excoriate, to take the measure of where a lack of collaboration has led and pursue a different path.” In the end, can’t we all just get along. Perhaps as America’s attitude towards the rest of the world adjusts with the incoming new administration, an environment in which collaboration and understanding can begin to take hold. Waxman presents an incredibly complex argument in all its permutations with delicacy and understanding, never taking a single side but always presenting the strengths and flaws of each position. In a world at war since the dawn of time, Sharon Waxman’s Loot: The Battle Over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World shines a light on how the battle over the past not only reflects our present conflicts but also, in its potentially peaceful resolution, may point the way toward a brighter tomorrow.

[Many thanks to Times Books for providing me with a review copy of Sharon Waxman’s Loot: The Battle Over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World.]

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Pyramid Scheme

Always trying to express the inexpressible in the simplest terms, Wassily Kandinsky tried to depict spiritual progress as a triangle or pyramid to be climbed in his 1912 landmark work of art theory, Concerning the Spiritual in Art. "The life of the spirit may be fairly represented in diagram as a large acute-angled triangle divided horizontally into unequal parts with the narrowest segment uppermost,” Kandinsky writes. “The lower the segment the greater it is in breadth, depth, and area.The whole triangle is moving slowly, almost invisibly forwards and upwards. Where the apex was today the second segment is tomorrow; what today can be understood only by the apex and to the rest of the triangle is an incomprehensible gibberish, forms tomorrow the true thought and feeling of the second segment." Born December 16, 1866, Kandinsky is often accused of writing “incomprehensible gibberish” when it comes to art, but his influence on modern art and the advent of abstraction is undeniable. Kandinsky wanted to link music and art together as two non-rational media following the same spiritual set of rules. Composition VI (above, from 1913) aspires to the state of music in eschewing all recognizable subject matter and becoming pure expression of color and line. Once Kandinsky opened the door and explained his ultimate destination, much of the art world slowly followed him through.

Like Picasso, Kandinsky goes through many different stages in his art right up to the end of his life. Always evolving, neither artist is easy to pin down. However, Kandinsky differs from Picasso in that Picasso sheds his earlier styles for the most part before moving on to the next thing. In Kandinsky’s art, you always sense the baggage of earlier techniques coming along for the ride. The theoretical dialogue Kandinsky maintained with the art world at large represented only a sliver of the larger dialogue running inside Kandinsky’s own head. Fugue (above, from 1914), another musically titled work, reflects the turmoil of all these ideas working simultaneously like point and counterpoint in Bach. Kandinsky founded Der Blaue Reiter with Franz Marc, August Macke, and others and even later taught at the Bauhaus with Paul Klee, bouncing his ideas off of these other artists continually, but I always get the sense of Kandinsky as the ultimate loner in the crowd, stuck inside of his own head despite his best attempts to communicate.

I’ve tried to read Kandinsky’s theories on art but usually come away with only a vague notion and a pounding headache for my efforts. As much as he tried to diagram and chart abstractions such as the spiritual and art itself, they always remained slippery ghosts. Kandinsky’s best explanations for his ideas remain his works themselves. A work such as Several Circles (above, from 1926) seems such a simple thing that even a child could manage, but the perfection of arrangement and the balance of contrast and color belie any idea of accident or chance. Kandinsky always knew what he was doing, thinking and overthinking every element. For him, every shade of color held a storehouse of meaning and every line could change your life with a single turn. “All Profound things, and emotions of things are preceded and attended by Silence,” Herman Melville writes in Pierre. “Silence is the general consecration of the universe. Silence is the invisible laying on of the Divine Pontiff's hands upon the world. Silence is at once the most harmless and the most awful thing in all nature. It speaks of the Reserved Forces of Fate. Silence is the only Voice of our God.” Standing before Kandinsky’s works, buttressed by his great scheme of words and aspiring to the condition of music, we realize that silence may be the only voice that truly speaks for them.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Character References

I recall with a shudder of horror the one and only time I stepped into a Hello Kitty store in a mall to buy a gift for a young girl smitten with the character. The sheer variety of items stunned me at first, but I was even more amazed at the selection of items for adults, including full-size luggage. It’s hard for Americans to understand the Asian infatuation with cutesy characters. The Editors of PIE Books offer an entrance into the Japanese advertising psyche with Character Design Today: 200 Powerful Characters and Applications. They even commissioned a special “Mr. C” character (above) from successful advertising art director Kenjiro Sano to show the process of character creation from the very beginning. “With me, rather than deciding I am going to make a character, instead I use characters as one means of achieving clarity and communicability,” Sano explains. “A character does not exist merely for the sake of being a character. Rather, it is the symbol of a personality.” After explaining the thought process behind “Mr. C,” Sano analyzes several other characters as “case studies,” pointing out how each one succeeds as a character and as a marketing tool.

Although the call for submissions to Character Design Today was international, over 90% of the characters featured come from Japan, where seemingly every product, business, and cause links itself to a fictional being aspiring to a full-fledged life of its own. In Character Design Today, each character comes complete with the rationale of its being as well as a taste of the various incarnations it can take. Momiji Bank, for example, built an entire advertising campaign around Momijin (above), an Afro-headed, spikey-sideburned bank employee toiling tirelessly to help local people “make their dreams come true.” Momijin’s creators insert him into all kinds of social situations to generate the illusion of an actual life beyond the office, as if Momijin could ever once allow himself to just relax and stop working. The oddness of Momijin’s appearance, strangely Asian and African-American simultaneously, only adds to his memorableness, the ultimate goal of his existence.

“Fighting night and day to prevent printer colors from fading,” the Tsuyo Ink series of heroes (above) come in the same spectrum of colors offered for your printer. Superheroes and heroines are even bigger in Japan than in America. Thanks to anime, the “kids’ stuff” stigma that clings to superheroes in the United States barely exists at all in Japan. I can’t help but look at the Tsuyo Ink hero and think of The Tick and all the fun and zaniness of that character. Whereas some of the character associations described in Character Design Today seem overly forced and strained, the dynamism of the Tsuyo hero perfectly matches the idea of bright, bold, fun color emblazoned on your documents. A similar heroic character based on Sherlock Holmes shills for a real estate properties internet portal site called Home’s. Whereas Tsuyo Ink wanted energy, Home’s wants to recreate the detective legwork feel by invoking the greatest detective in all of fiction.

When the Japanese horseracing industry wanted to broaden their appeal, especially to the young, they created the slacker-type character of Umatase (above). Of all the characters discussed, Umatase may have the most intricate and involved existence. He even blogs! The illustration above shows just a small selection of the many moods and activities of Umatase. Umatase dolls and other promotional items help spread the word of Umatase like a cult figure. The fact that Umatase deals with relationship problems and a general lack of motivation helps young people identify with the character and, perhaps, become interested in Umatase’s “other world” of horseracing, which is the actual primary reason for his existence. It’s not hard to see how a fan base can build around such characters who offer a diverse body of content on a regular basis and reward close attention with the twists and turns of a soap opera, but all for free.

One of the most interesting uses of characters in Japan is by local governments. When the Japanese government looked for a way to discourage smoking on the streets, they commissioned Akan-Zukin (above), a sour-pussed Little Red Riding Hood knockoff who just cannot abide second-hand smoke. With paddle in hand, Akan-Zukin admonishes smokers who invade her personal space with their smoldering butts. Even the cigarettes themselves come to life and speak of their shame. Unfortunately, the text doesn’t comment on the overall effectiveness of the Akan-Zukin campaign, which began in 2007. If such a character proved powerful enough to change the habits of addicted smokers, that might be the greatest testimony to the usefulness of these quirky icons.

If the logic of the characters in Character Design Today escapes you, that’s the point. “The process of making something based on ‘feeling’ and then validating it is very important” in advertising, Kenjiro Sano believes. “Making something that changes the terms of feeling and reason helps surpass logic and makes it good. That’s my philosophy.” Japanese advertising’s use of characters exploits a philosophy that places emotional appeal over rational connection. Americans prefer to believe that they make their choices of goods, services, and even politicians based on reason, but emotion and “feeling” play just as big a part in our decision making process as in that of Japanese consumers consumed by the day-to-day life of a lazy, fictional horse. Character Design Today looks into the world of advertising of Japan and reflects on all advertising and modern means of communication with the right combination of fun and serious business.

[Many thanks to Rizzoli and PIE Books for providing me with a review copy of Character Design Today: 200 Powerful Characters and Applications and for the images above.]

Monday, December 15, 2008

Anti-Idea Man

If you look closely at the cover of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, festooned with so many famous faces, between playwright George Bernard Shaw and soccer star Albert Stubbins and peeking out from behind the feather in George Harrison’s hat, you’ll find the face of iconoclast American sculptor H.C. Westermann. Born December 11, 1902, Westermann led a colorful life, doing everything from performing as an acrobat to working in logging camps and rail yards before serving as a navy gunner during World War II in the Pacific Theater. Watching Japanese kamikaze attacks kill American sailors as well as the attacker, Westermann developed an anti-war, anti-ideological, and anti-materialist philosophy that refused to accept a world in which humans killed other humans, and sometimes themselves, in blind allegiance to an idea. Westermann’s sculpture titled Memorial to the Idea of Man If He Was an Idea (closed) (above, from 1958) quirkily calls into question the values that compel nations and people to wage wars. The robotic look of the “memorial” comments on the blind automatism of citizens who support governments unquestioningly. The single, cyclopic eye mimics the lack of vision of such people, who refuse to see any depth or complexity to the issues of the day. Man is not an “idea,” Westermann says. Man is man, nothing more or less, with the freedom to be anything and not just a predetermined idea.

It’s easy to see how the Beatles wanted to include Westermann among their pantheon of heroes. A rugged, very physically active man as well as an infectious thinker, Westermann showed the way for other artists to find their own way, such as the equally unconventional and anti-establishment painter Peter Saul. In the 1950s and 1960s, when America’s post-war profile in the world grew exponentially and the American way of life in all its materialist glory reigned supreme, Westermann saw only darkness behind the gleam of shiny new cars and refrigerators. In Antimobile (above, from 1965-1966), Westermann shows the twisted sensibility of a country that made an idol out of the automobile by sculpting a literally twisted automobile steering wheel. Westermann targets the American infatuation with the car as a prime example of how the country has lost its way spiritually while consumed by getting someplace physically. Westermann sees America getting nowhere fast.

In addition to sculpture, Westermann tried his hand at printmaking with the same iconoclastic touch. Turning a popular advertising slogan for tourism on its head, Westermann created a series of prints titled See America First (Untitled No. 1 is above, from October 1968). Advertisers wanted Americans to travel domestic and spend their money in America to help fuel the American economic machine. Westermann calls on people to open their eyes and actually see the America they’re traveling in as a place desperately in need of a spiritual awakening. As flames lick upwards and surround a bare skull, the words “See America First” take on a sinister cast that belie the sunny optimism of the post-war period. Westermann’s work is perceived by some as anti-American, but I only get a sense of the love he had for his country as an assemblage of people rather than as an abstract concept grown beyond the control of those same people. If we could only see America first as just the combined desires and hopes of ordinary people, then those desires and hopes might actually be realized.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Never Forget

No other artist painted the horror of the Holocaust from the inside like Felix Nussbaum. Born December 11, 1904, Nussbaum and his family met their end at Auschwitz in 1944 after more than a decade of cheating death at the hands of the Nazis. When Nussbaum painted The Refugee (above, from 1939), he already knew what fate held in store for him and the rest of the Jews of Europe. Using the Surrealist style he developed over years of study, Nussbaum presents the surreal realization of madness on a global scale. The man sitting at the end of the long table opposite the globe that dominates the room knows there is no escape. The room itself seems like a prison cell. Outside, the trees are bare and black ravens circle ominously. Nussbaum found himself a refugee with no hope of refuge, trapped within the Europe of his birth and doomed by a religion he never fully embraced. The sense of anguish and despair is palpable, even without seeing the man’s face.

Nussbaum fought back against Nazi ideas about race and art early on. When the Nazis staged their infamous “Degenerate Art” exhibition, Nussbaum contributed works to a counter-exhibition. In 1940, the Nazis captured Nussbaum and his wife and placed them in a concentration camp in the south of France. Two years later, the Nussbaums escaped and fled to Belgium. During that time, friends helped Nussbaum hide and provided him with paints and canvases, with which he painted works such as Self-Portrait with Jewish Passport (above, from 1943). Nussbaum paints himself as clearly the hunted rather than the hunter. Although he never actually wore in public the Star of David badge imposed on Jews by the Nazis, Nussbaum holds the star in this self-portrait, along with the passport that could never be used to escape. One month before the Allies liberated Brussels, the Nussbaums were captured again and eventually sent to Auschwitz.

Nussbaum painted many works of his time in the camps during his years of freedom, including In the Camp (above, from 1944). These brutal, dehumanizing scenes show life in the camps with almost documentary accuracy. The surreal landscapes of Giorgio de Chirico, one of Nussbaum’s early heroes, take an even more sinister turn in these paintings. Perhaps only a Surrealist painter could approximate the upside down world of the Holocaust, where reason itself ceased to exist. The man who held his head in his hands in The Refugee in 1939 returns to face his final days. Sadly, Nussbaum’s work was forgotten after the war. His reputation almost died with him. Not until 1971 were his surviving works exhibited again. Nussbaum’s reputation soon spread and a museum was built in his native Osnabruck in 1998. “Never forget” has become the mantra of those who keep alive the memory of those who suffered through the Holocaust and who dedicate themselves to never letting it happen again. Felix Nussbaum never flinched from the sight of his oncoming destruction and painted works that will always remind us of his courage and the need to indeed never forget.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Green Party

When Al Gore wrote An Inconvenient Truth, he most likely never envisioned his ecological ideas spawning a stepchild such as Dame Darcy’s Gasoline: A Graphic Novel. Billed as “a post-apocalyptic world inhabited by faeries, pirate lasses, zombie sailors, mermaids, arrow-splitting prarie dogs, Native American trackers, and plenty of good witches!”, Gasoline brings Dame Darcy’s unique take on the world’s addiction to fossil fuels to the public in weirdly wonderful words and imaginatively inventive illustrations. Illustrator, writer, fine artist, musician, filmmaker, and animator, Dame Darcy, best known for her comic Meatcake, also offers a soundtrack to Gasoline with her group Death by Doll and is currently adapting Gasoline for film. (Gasoline: The Cookbook and Gasoline for Wii aren’t ready yet, I guess.) As fellow comics artist Gilbert Hernandez says of Dame Darcy: “Love and imagination and a little madness (in the best sense of the word) inform her highly original and eccentric comics.” By definition, any statement about Dame Darcy can only be an understatement. She is a force that must be experienced to be believed, and Gasoline delivers a high-octane dose.

Gasoline follows the path of the Armbuster family as they scavenge gasoline from the ravaged landscape and explore alternative fuels and means of transportation, specifically an electric car. The leader of the Armbuster pack is Amity, the Queen Witch, and wife of King Witch, Dain. Amity serves as a doppelganger for Dame Darcy herself. “She was currently writing her songs, music, and combination dialogue-spell-prayer, as well as embroidering a white velvet knight’s tunic with fleurs-de-lis,” Darcy writes of a typical day for Amity (shown above multitasking in her garden). Gasoline sets up a clear opposition between the Armbusters and their archenemies, the Nihilists, who “are one with the darkness and evil that consumed Earth.” Darcy’s artistic utopia centers on the Armbusters. “Everyone in the community was an artisan, a craftsperson who fused socialism with nostalgia,” Darcy writes of her Arts and Crafts Movement gone nuclear in creative energy. In this respect, Darcy channels William Morris in her belief that art can truly change the world for the better. In Meatcake, Darcy generates a Victorian era atmosphere, and Gasoline follows suit with an apocalyptic future superimposed on that Victorian past.

The variety of characters Darcy introduces is as dizzying as the story itself. Imagine Gulliver’s Travels on fast forward, or an even more uninhibited Lewis Carroll. The illustrations to the text more than keep pace with the words. The illustration of a house with a face (above) perfectly combines the naïve style Darcy strives to maintain with the sophisticated sense of design and execution. It’s not easy to make adult literature look like children’s literature, but Dame Darcy maintains the magic while keeping an eye on the serious issues of the environment and the need to pursue alternative means of energy. It’s easy to dismiss Dame Darcy and her whole world woven of bits and pieces of fable and myth as a lot of New Age zaniness, but perhaps it takes such an alternative view of the world to get at the heart of the world’s problems. Al Gore never seemed as cool as when he talked passionately about global warming.

The marriage of Dame Darcy’s writing with her illustrations made me think of what William Blake would have been like as a woman. Darcy conducts the same restless energy that Blake did in his poetry and designs, but charges it with her uniquely feminist power. When Amity presides over a raucous voodoo ritual (above) that mixes the twenty-third psalm, snake handling, rooster sacrifice, and tribal dancing, Dame Darcy concocts her own private religion with woman as the central doctrine: “The Black Madonna, the human symbol of the primal goddess from whom all life originated, the embodiment of Mother Nature; she who had been there when women had been robbed of their birthright to power through intuitiveness and nature; the vessel and the giver of life, the conduit from the ether to this Earth.” You don’t fool with Dame Darcy’s Mother Nature. This all-inclusive “religion,” for lack of a better word, achieves a primal sense of imperativeness when it comes to ecology and just how high the stakes are for humankind.

“Boredom is the source of evil,” says one of the characters in Gasoline, which is many things, but never boring. When Amity dons a Joan of Arc costume (above), you truly get a sense that she, and by extension, Dame Darcy, are on a mission from God, or the gods. Darcy gets her most Blakean in a final coda featuring an illustrated single-page poem titled “Atom,” which puns on Adam and Eve. “The human race,” Darcy writes, “perceived/ their being/ and each other/ an alien universe/ unconnected/ with the source/ The Mother.” Gasoline will reconnect you with your wild side, your feminine side, and sides you never imagined you had, all while opening your eyes to an abundance of imagination and creativity. Like all utopias, Dame Darcy’s is unattainable, of course, but that never makes it less attractive or less an ideal to strive towards. In the eighteenth century, William Blake toiled in relative obscurity, a victim of closed minds that could never admit his uniqueness into their consciousness for a single second. In Gasoline, Dame Darcy asks us for a moment of our time with the promise of eternity, if not an eternal fuel source, in a single hour of reading.

[Many thanks to Merrell Publishers for providing me with a review copy of Dame Darcy’s Gasoline: A Graphic Novel and for the images above.]

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Influence of Anxiety

Edvard Munch’s The Scream (above, from 1893) now belongs to that select club of works of art that reach into mainstream international culture even to people who know little about art. Born December 12, 1863, Munch would be surprised by the appeal of his works today considering how little known he was for most of his life. It wasn’t until 1944 that Munch’s work was shown in America, and only then because of his anti-Nazi stance during the German occupation of his native Norway during World War II. Even his homeland failed to appreciate Munch’s art until Germany and the Expressionists saw a kindred spirit in Munch and exhibited Munch alongside such artists as Paul Cezanne, Paul Gauguin, and the other great “discovery” of the Expressionists, Vincent Van Gogh. Today, Munch’s imagery serves as shorthand for the modern condition of alienation and anxiety. The strange, open-mouthed figure on that bridge bathed in bizarre red and orange light screams for us all.

Although Munch could be sociable when he wanted to be, developing deep, if complex friendships with fellow artists such as August Strindberg, the general impression I get from what I’ve read of Munch is that he was for the most part a private, introspective person. Munch’s Night in St. Cloud (above, from 1890) illustrates introspection beautifully, posing a top-hatted gentleman near the window who is barely noticeable in the darkness. The moonlight seeping through the high window casts a shadow on the floor that resembles a cross, perhaps suggesting that the figure is musing on the God’s presence, or lack of, in the world. Instead of a scream of angst, we hear here the silence of anxiety stored up to the point of exploding. Dressed in a top hat and, presumably, other formal wear, the man either anticipates a journey outside or has just returned from his travels and is too preoccupied to undress. In this image of quiet, we can sense the disquiet of the man’s soul.

In the woodcut titled simply Anxiety (above, from 1896), Munch gathers together a group of faces to represent the public sense of anxiety generated by the anxiousness of the individual. Anxiety anticipates the work of someone like George Tooker, who paints the specific brand of alienation and psychic pain found in twentieth century America. Ingmar Bergmann, the Swedish director of many tales of Scandinavian anxiety (Wild Strawberries and Persona are my personal favorites), approximates the atmosphere of a Munch painting in film better than any other filmmaker. In 1930, a burst blood vessel in Munch’s eye damaged his vision severely, cutting back on his ability to see and, thus, paint. Yet, Munch continued to do his best, strangely even thriving in a way on his disability, as if this one added obstacle made the race more interesting as he lived into his seventies. For an artist, nothing could be more angst-inducing than losing your eyesight, but Munch took that misfortune, as he had with all the other misfortunes of his life, and transformed pain into paint. Annie and I almost saw the 2006 MoMA exhibition of Munch work, but Annie, who was very pregnant with Alex at the time, suddenly took sick and we had to cancel. It was a very anxious day. Munch would have loved it.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Tower of Power

“You be half good and half no good, well, that's no good,” muses Sam Rodia, builder of the famous (and to some, infamous) Watts Towers, the subject of Edward Landler and Brad Byer’s documentary film, I Build the Tower. (The International House in Philadelphia will be hosting a screening of I Build the Tower on Thursday, December 11 at 7 pm, followed by a conversation with architect/artist David Slovic and art critic/curator Judith E. Stein.) From the 1920s through the 1950s, Rodia (shown above, perched on the towers around 1950) built a series of towers on his small plot of land in Watts using steel and concrete and decorated them with shards of pottery, sea shells, and other found objects. Rodia, also known sometimes as “Simon,” could never do anything halfway—“half good and half no good”—and literally took his towers to the extreme, with the highest rising almost 100 feet above the ground. Landler and Byer take the memory of Rodia, preserved beautifully in earlier documentary footage and recordings, and demonstrate how the Watts Towers, the brainchild of an opera-loving Italian immigrant, became an integral part of the African-American Watts culture of jazz and hip hop that developed around it. “Rodia refused to give the towers any meaning,” one commentator says, but Landler and Byer present the meaning that the towers have assumed as they took on a life of their own.

Born in 1879 in one of the poorest sections of Southern Italy, Rodia explained that his journey to America at the age of fourteen was his parents’ “fault.” Making his way in the New World by his wits and natural intelligence, Rodia learned multiple trades, including masonry, brick laying, and tile laying. These skills became the foundation upon which the towers were built years later. Rodia eventually made it to California and began a family in the San Francisco area. Sadly, Rodia’s alcoholism led to his divorce in 1912, after which he traveled to South and Central America and all over the United States working odd jobs. In 1919, Rodia recognizes how he’s misspent his youth and quits drinking and smoking. Soon, the towers occupy all of Rodia’s compulsiveness. Rodia chose Watts over another location because more people lived in Watts at the time. The other location soon increased in population as it skyrocketed in fame—Beverly Hills. Buying cement at 20 cents a sack and steel at $14 per ton, the 100-pound Rodia carried these materials up the towers nights after working his day job as a mason, on the weekends, and even on holidays. The filmmakers connect the tall wooden towers of the Italian religious processions of Rodia’s childhood to the design of the towers themselves. A prow-like section of the tower base resembles the ship that carried Rodia to his destiny in America. Throughout, Rodia and the towers (shown together above in a 1953 photo by Jay Weynn) become almost inseparable in the mind of the viewer.

What really makes the film soar is the unforgettable presence of Rodia himself thanks to archival footage of the sculptor made in the late 1950s when researchers tracked Rodia down to his new home in Martinez, California. (A 1960 photo by Nicholas King of Rodia in his apartment appears above.) Rodia intones pronouncements like a Biblical prophet crying in the American wilderness. “Thomas Jefferson, he wrote the Constitution in the United States,” Rodia intones, “and they don’t use it.” Listening to Rodia rail on about the injustice of multiple taxation, you mourn that he died before talk radio hit the airwaves. “The world is money,” Rodia offers at one point. “No matter who you are, what you are, you ain’t got a dollar in the pocket, you in the hole.” Money and economics dominated much of Rodia’s thinking, but he’s much sharper and logical than your typical geezer on a rant stereotype. R. Buckminster Fuller, all polished and pressed, appears as an anti-Rodia of sorts to comment on Rodia, whom Fuller feels will be eventually considered one of the great sculptors of his time. By placing Fuller and Rodia side by side, as it were, the filmmakers illustrate wonderfully how outward appearances can be deceiving on the grandest of scales.

“I build the tower,” Rodia once said, providing the title for the film, “the people like, everybody come.” Landler and Byer incorporated those words and others into a rap song that opens the film, linking from the very beginning Rodia’s sculpture of the near past with the vital community that has embraced the eccentric artist and his towers as part of their multifaceted heritage. Rodia worked with “an insanity that we all need,” says one of the artists supporting the Watts Tower Arts Center, which stands in the shadow of the towers and sponsors music festivals and other community events. Jazz great Charles Mingus recalled in his autobiography Beneath the Underdog what it was like to grow up in Watts and look at the towers each day. Looking at the young faces upturned to those same towers in I Build the Tower, you wonder which of them will also be inspired to great things. From the amazingly cohesive soundtrack of Verdi, hip hop, and jazz to the beautiful images of the tower itself set against a brilliant blue sky, I Build the Tower will fill you with the joy and energy of the memory of an unconventional man and his unconventional achievement and, perhaps, inspire you to build your own tower of individuality.

[Many thanks to Bench Movies for providing me with a review copy of I Build the Tower and for the images above. The International House in Philadelphia will be hosting a screening of I Build the Tower on Thursday, December 11 at 7 pm, followed by a conversation with architect/artist David Slovic and art critic/curator Judith E. Stein.]