More on The Human Form

A few days ago, I wrote briefly about the work of a few artists whose representation of the human form sort of dazzles me. I knew there was one I was forgetting, and now I’ve gone and found her. Lola Dupre makes these really often disturbing collages of people. I’m not sure that, given a ream of yellow construction paper and a ream of black, I could make a convincing smiley face, so what she does with shading and texture to make these distorted people really amazes me. I can’t look away.

The Human Form

I’ve come across a few artists lately whose work to represent the human form really amazes me. I remember drawing a few sketches of human faces as a teenager that were nowhere near even vaguely realistic (in spite of my best attempts) but that didn’t embarrass me utterly (at the time, I was sort of proud of a couple of them in spite of their vaulted foreheads, their ridiculous chins, their pencil-carven noses, their ashen complexions). What these artists do to capture the human form (or face) is astonishing.

First up, Jason Thielke:

He shows more absence in this piece than presence. With circles and arcs, a few curves, and some white space, he creates an image of a woman transported. I’m no art expert, but the impression I receive from his work is that he’s something like the love child of a draftsman and a spirograph enthusiast. I marvel at every piece, cannot conceive of how he does it.

Second up, Mark Khaisman:

He makes his art by layering packing tape over backlit acrylic sheets. He creates curve and gesture, light and shadow — with tape. There’s a degree to which the majesty of the human mind gets some credit for the impressions his art leaves, but I am so very taken with how he can bluntly apply his simple materials to goad the gullible mind into seeing what he would have us see.

Up next, Lui Ferreyra:

Ferreyra, like the prior two artists, uses geometry and shading to capture form and somehow attitude or mood. He seems to have several modes of work. Here I’ve chosen my favorite, the geometric, but he also has remarkable pieces that resemble the painting books we received as children in which by applying water to inked areas on a page we seemed to paint a picture and pieces that are more like simple line art.

And finally Egon Schiele:

Schiele is apparently famous and nearly 100 years dead and I am a philistine for not having known his work before. The pieces I’ve looked at have been disproportionate and raw and grotesque, very human for all their muddled monstrosity. Leaping 75sh years past Schiele’s death, it’s hard not to see echoes of his work in the old MTV cartoon Aeon Flux, his ragged post-WWI dystopian horror reflected in that jittery dystopian futurescape.

Iron Pour

A friend of mine teaches art at the University of Tennessee, and I pick his brain from time to time about art. I’m really interested in art but don’t really know much about it, and knowing an artist is really neat, though sometimes I worry that by turning chat so often to art, I’m being sort of a jerk (maybe he’d like to talk about sports or politics or parenting or television sometimes). I’ve also always been fascinated by industrial things. For example, I’m really interested in things like factory tours, although I never actually manage to go on any. Mechanization — or really human innovation in general, with things like mechanization as just one example — is really amazing to me. So too is the fact that one day somebody figured out probably more or less by accident that molten iron could be molded into useful forms and that, as our species began to be able to allocate more resources to culture than to survival, people started practicing this skill with a more artistic than pragmatic purpose. So when my friend mentioned that the UT sculpture club was going to be holding an iron pour, all my little fascination alarm bells started dinging.

wpid-wp-1415497957489.jpegIron pours, it turns out, are a pain to put on, and so they’re fairly rare. Some sculptors will basically go on road trips from one iron pour to the next, and so sculptors from at least as far away as Minnesota were visiting to help throw this shindig. I wasn’t really sure what to expect when we (my family came with) arrived. There was a big kiln or perhaps you’d call it a furnace, maybe a bit smaller than a 50 gallon drum, sitting on a stand. A few people stood around while others began loading the furnace with what I guess was maybe coke. It would be a couple of hours, my friend told us, before they would begin pouring any metal. Other people were filling sacks with salvaged iron and still others were breaking larger pieces of salvaged iron into smaller pieces that would then be put into the sacks.

The club was making sort of a fund raiser of the public event, selling shirts and the opportunity to make scratch tiles. This stuff wasn’t set up yet when we first got there, so we walked to an anthropology museum on campus and let the kids run around some in the lovely Fall weather and came back a couple of hours later to get started making scratch tiles.

To talk about scratch tiles, I first have to talk about how you make a mold to begin with. I imagine there are several methods, but the one in evidence today used molds made of sand. What? Yes, sand. Well, it’s sand mixed with some kind of chemical that makes it hold its shape and that I suppose might impart some properties to the sand that prevent it from turning to glass under extreme heat. The artists pouring iron had brought many molds, some of whose shapes you could discern and some of whose shapes were buried inside the molds with holes for pouring the iron in. So, say you’re making a bowling ball: the whole thing has to be encased in a mold with something like a periscope hole for pouring the metal into; a piece with a flat exposed surface (like, say, a relief) needs no such contrivance, and so its negative shape can be seen in full; these tend to look like oddly misshapen bowls. A scratch tile uses a shallow square mold with a recess in it, as if you had taken a square brick of hardened light brown sugar, which is what the stuff looks like, and pressed a tile into it. You then scratch your design into the recessed area, and when the iron is poured in, it fills the scratched design and leaves you with an iron tile basically scarified with your design.

We’re not accustomed to carrying much cash and were ill prepared, but borrowing four bucks from my friend (which made me feel like a real tool — some patron of the arts I am — though he was very gracious about it), we were able to scrounge enough cash to let the kids each scratch a tile.

wpid-wp-1415497959578.jpegSince our departure and return, a bunch more people had showed up, many of them wearing what looked like suede protective outfits and helmets with face shields. The furnace shot a point of bright orange fire out its top, and one of the holes near its bottom spit occasional sparks. When I say a jet of fire, I don’t mean that it was a flame; I mean that it seemed like the kind of thing that you imagine shooting out the back of a fighter plane’s engines. One guy climbed a little platform beside the furnace occasionally and dumped in buckets of iron scraps. Things were really getting exciting! Well, they were exciting for me. My kids were pretty bored by it after they were done designing their tiles, which sort of blows my mind. At some point, some of the folk working the event turned what I guess is probably called a crucible upside down over the fire, I suppose to heat it gradually so that the sudden introduction of super hot iron doesn’t break it, though I’m really not positive that’s why. And then all of a sudden, two people in their fancy suede duds were carrying the crucible on a pole between them over to some of the molds. They pretty casually poured the iron into the various little periscope holes like some thick psychedelic orange juice. They didn’t get much of a pour, it seemed to me, but then I suppose that’s why the event was scheduled to last all day.

Before and between pours, some people worked on keeping the crucibles hot by pointing what seemed like basically an industrial hairdryer into the vessels, only instead of air, it blew flaming gas until the inside of the crucible glowed.

My daughter in particular was really sick of the affair by now (both kids were put off by the smell, which was a little acrid but not so bad, really), but I wanted to see one more pour, and they were going to pour the scratch tiles next, which I thought the kids might find interesting since they had more of a stake in it. I was wrong. It took a few minutes to get the iron back up to temperature, but when they did, they had two crucibles going for a couple of minutes, and watching those carrying the hot metal navigate around one another and around the various obstacles (people, pallets of molds, the ground made irregular by mounds of sand used for dampening any spills) was like watching a sort of dance.

The tiles flamed as they were poured and even after, and we could see the orange molten square glowing for minutes after. I’m not sure how long it takes them to cool and harden, since we left shortly after this second pour. We’ll retrieve the tiles later.

Watching this event made me wish I were artistic. Or, as I said wistfully on the drive home, I’m artistically inclined but not artistically talented, so that while an event like this has a whole lot of appeal for me, it’s not the sort of thing I could ever have hoped to attend as more than an interloper. Interloping was fun, though. I would have gladly stayed and watched, pretty well mesmerized, for the whole time. If there’s another iron pour in the next few years, I’d love to go and would for sure make a scratch tile of my own. I’m grateful that my friend let me know about the event. It was a real treat.

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Dog with Cones, Wall Hangings, and Tape Measure


A couple of times now, coworkers have commissioned some of my art. Here is a piece I drew for a coworker frustrated by her dog’s habit of pooping any time she leaves him alone in the house. I proposed (to be clear: in absolute jest) the installation of a colostomy bag and two cones of shame — one at each end — as a resolution to the problem. She asked for an illustration and I came up with this, which I will confess I drew somewhat hastily.

We have here a dog in shoes and with a cone at each end of his body. He is pointing with one foot like a hunting dog, and because he’s such a cool character, he’s got sunglasses mounted on his head cone. The spiked collar adds to his cool factor as well, I think. But he’s more than cool. Observe the Mona Lisa hanging on the wall behind him; this fellow has culture as well! The cat clock adds a touch of whimsy and marks the passing of time, which really sums up the artistic thesis here. Although I drew a happily erect tail, I might have done better to draw marks demonstrating its wagging motion, which would have reinforced this pup’s zest for life in spite of — or perhaps precisely because of — the ever-present awareness of the passage of time (carpe diem, etc.).

A careful observer may pick up on subtle hints of a lament for the bow-tie in this piece. Others may try to impose on it a meaning pertaining to firearms; art belongs to the interpreter as much as to the maker, of course, but I cannot (nay: will not) claim to have tried to imbue this piece with any subtext pertaining to firearms.

The tape measure is an inside joke. Enjoy!


Last week while in San Jose for work at the BlogHer conference, I took an hour or two off to visit the San Jose Museum of Art. I really love going to art museums, though I often forget, between rare visits, how much I enjoy going. I almost decided not to go this time, in fact, since I had a lot of work to do. But it was a half a block from my hotel, and I ultimately couldn’t resist.

I rediscovered on this visit that I respond very favorably to abstract (or at least not realist) paintings done in vibrant colors. Several of the pieces I snapped photos of or took brief notes about were almost technicolor. It’s an interesting preference, since in home decor, I tend to prefer a more muted palette. Take for example the work of Kara Maria, of which the museum housed one titled Deployment in Wonderland. I don’t embed it here because boobies, but it is basically a bright pink and green painting of a woman splayed out as if in the boudoir, with miniature semi-realistic camouflaged soldiers lurking about her person as if on watch. The painting is double provocative because it depicts something that some might view as pornographic and also confronts the (needlessly) controversial issue of guardianship of women’s bodies. I like the painting because it’s clever and bold and a little weird.

I also was pleased by a piece by Susan Rothenberg titled Tuning Fork. I don’t have a proper vocabulary for talking about art, but what I liked about this one was its seeming careless layering of color and the curious, kind of evil-looking doubling. The painting depicts a humanoid tuning fork type shape with a reddish shadow cast not only by the prongs of the fork but by the empty gap between them. It’s kind of eery and unsettling. It’s a devilish little tuning fork, and of course the devil is often depicted carrying a pitchfork of his own, so there’s a clever pun mixed up in this piece. I liked it a lot.

I had heard of Cy Twombly before but had never really looked at his art, and it appealed to me. It’s tempting for a philistine like me to group Twombly with someone like Pollock, who, when I was younger, I could never quite understand the appeal of. I used to (and to some degree probably still do) equate the value of art with the effort involved in creating it, and a canvas with a bunch of paint seemingly randomly dripped on it didn’t really qualify as great art in my book. I still won’t pretend that I understand Pollock’s work, or of course Twombly’s, but I do like Twombly’s in particular now that I’ve seen one of them up close. The association I made between Twombly and Pollock was based on the piece I saw in the museum (I forget its title), but on looking at other images of his paintings, I see less of a kinship. I find a lot of them appealing, even if I don’t really know what to make of them. Art need not (maybe should not) be about trying to make things of anything.

The museum hosted several pieces by Jasper Johns, and I didn’t like them very much at all. What struck me about them was his use of newspaper, which reminded me of an artist I like very much indeed — Gordon Cheung. Cheung uses newspaper and bright colors to render really interesting, beautiful paintings that lie somewhere between realism and the psychedelic (tending more toward the latter). So while I didn’t love the Johns work, I was glad to have seen it if only for the reminder of how much I like Cheung’s.

Going to a museum is kind of a weird experience if you don’t actually know much about art. Standing there looking at a piece, I wonder if I’m giving it its due. I wonder things like whether lingering in front of a piece makes me seem like some kind of an art poser who’s trying to project an aura of performing a grand deed of interpretation. Sometimes I don’t know how I’m supposed to interpret a piece, or whether I’m supposed to (generally I’m disinclined to try to force a meaning on them). I have anxiety about reading placards beside the work. As often as not, they’re silly and seem to tidily state an artist’s position that seems likely to have been made after the work was done. Often enough, they state the obvious, or they contain abstractions that I could do without. Still, I read the placards in hopes that they’ll tell me something interesting about the artist or the work. But as I stand there reading the placards, I wonder if others in the gallery think me a moron for needing to read them. Of course, if I don’t read the placards, then any observers might think I fancy myself a great art critic, when that’s not the vibe I wish to project either. Being in the gallery feels like being an object in the gallery, and I wish I could always go alone and that the docents and guards would trust me not to take photographs, as I imagine them to be the most critical judges of my performance in the gallery. The fact of being there bodily is extremely uncomfortable for me.

But of course seeing the art up close and at scale is important. Photographs just don’t do big, layered art any justice. I think I also have a better cross-referential experience when viewing art in a gallery. I look at a piece and respond to it in some way. The pieces that click the most with me tend to do so on the basis of their cleverness or weirdness, and on whether I’ve ever seen anything quite like them before. They may provoke interpretations of some sort, or they may not, but they send me down different paths of thought as I consider them within the context of what little I know about art and begin to think of their relevance to the ways I think about the world. Then I move on to another piece that sends me down similar paths, quite possibly down some that intersect with other paths that my viewing of other pieces have led me down. Art that winds up being meaningful to me does so by surprising and delighting (or horrifying) me. The very best of it also provokes some thought about my experience in the world, but without being unselfconsciously preachy about it.

The San Jose museum is a small museum, but I really enjoyed my visit. Several pieces (some not mentioned here) surprised and delighted me, and I was treated to that experience of making connections between the various pieces of art and the world I live and breathe in. Sometimes when I think about the things I read, I’m inclined to think of them as nourishing. It feels a little pretentious, but it’s the word that seems right, so I suppose I’ll take a side of pretension with my course of descriptiveness. What I mean by it is of course that the reading does more than merely entertain me. It makes me feel like I belong in the world, and more importantly that perhaps someone else belongs in the world in a way roughly congruent with the way I do, so that I’m not alone in the way that I experience the world. The same can happen with visual art (perhaps more readily, in fact). I found my visit nourishing.

More Moby-Dick Art

My collection of Matt Kish’s Moby-Dick art continues to grow. A little before Christmas, he was taking commissions for fun, and my wife — knowing that I have kind of a thing for bookmarks — asked him to make some custom bookmarks for me. They’re really beautiful, with dark backgrounds and vibrant colors and iconic references to some of the striking images from his Moby-Dick art project. On the reverse side, he drew harpoons and lifted the following pretty iconic quotes from the book:

  • Call me Ishmael.
  • I am madness maddened!
  • To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme.

I love these things and debated framing them, but I think Matt would prefer that I actually use them in books, which I am of course terrified of doing. So they’ve sat on my desk since Christmas, where I’ve seen them every day while working. The next time I can get by a store that sells such things, I plan to buy some kind of cover to protect them a little bit, and then these’ll become my primary and treasured bookmarks.

I’m not above using a receipt or an airplane boarding pass as a bookmark, but I do love having handmade bookmarks relevant to my interests or, in any case, bookmarks that are striking or unique. (Another recent favorite is a cheapo souvenir I brought home from Portugal telling the story of and depicting the Cock of Barcelos. Because I am a twelve-year-old boy at heart.)

Anyway, here’s what my Moby-Dick bookmarks look like (the poor lighting and photo quality obviously don’t do the pieces justice):

Bookmark art

Bookmark text

Matt also did the poster for an independent movie that came out today entitled Ahab, and when my wife got wind that he was going to be selling the original artwork, she snapped it up for me for my birthday. Matt writes about making the poster here, and as pleased as he is about the high quality printing of the posters, I can’t help but feel pretty satisfied that I own the original from which the posters were created. Again the photo here is lousy. It really is a very bold, weird piece and a great addition to my growing art collection.