Talking about Art

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A group of friends recently met at my sister’s house in Hantsport for an experimental event. We billed the evening as Talking about Art. On a large blank wall, we projected images of artworks, illustrations, ads and movie clips. With each image, we invited the assembled guests to contribute any impressions or ideas the images evoked. There were common themes and two moderators helped stir the group in useful directions. The evening was sponsored by the Robert Pope Foundation.

Death in the News

Interview with Death, cartoon by Ed McKean, 2016

Interview with Death, cartoon by Ed McKean, 2016

Death is in the news, but refuses to give any answers. This is my take on recent terrorist attacks and the attention given to these tragic and senseless incidents on news outlets.

Fashion and Art

Natalie Goncharova. Costume designs: Liturgie, 1915; Spanish woman with a fan, 1920

Natalie Goncharova. Costume designs: Liturgie, 1915; Spanish woman with a fan, 1920

What can we learn about art from fashion? At their worst, fashion and art are regarded as superficial, driven by money, vanity and social pressures. Both are elitist, excessive and subject to continual change. On the other hand, both can be fun and creative, adding pleasure and meaning to everyday things.

Fashion may be easier to define than art. Fashion has a practical side and a psychological side. People wear clothes appropriate to changing seasons, weather, social rituals and other conditions. People also wear clothes for show. If you want to attract attention, imagination counts. Clothes are not fixed items. They express personality, social conformity, daring, and individuality. Clothes can be appropriate or inappropriate for the time and place in which they appear. Make a mistake and you might appear ridiculous. Or inspired.

From Mondrian to Michael Jackson, designers take inspiration from art, pop culture changes the meaning of military wear

From Mondrian to Rihanna, designers take inspiration from abstract art, pop culture changes the meaning of military wear

Clothes that stand still too long can make those who wear them seem hopelessly dated, out of touch with the changing times. Clothes are subject to trends, as are people. There can be no question about this: clothes get people talking. People are judged, fairly or not, on what they wear and how they wear it.

Woman with Jackson Pollock Painting

A model poses before a Jackson Pollock painting for a 1951 Vogue story.

Fashion is all about context and so is art. Jackson Pollock’s paintings made marvellous backdrops for models in the 1950s. The model above looks like she’s entered the dream world of the painting. Today’s art is all about immersion and altering environments.

Artist James Turrell uses colour to transform our experience of space. 'Virtuality squared' 2014

Artist James Turrell uses colour to transform experience. ‘Virtuality squared’ 2014

We connect clothes with concepts of style, taste and coolness. These are things we admire and want to emulate. Being comfortable in your own skin. Feeling at home wherever you go, operating easily with the world around you, knowing what you can get away with.

Evening Wear, study for a painting by Ed McKean

Evening Wear, study for a painting by Ed McKean

I draw and paint pictures to relieve tension, to amuse myself, to try to make sense of the world. The tension around clothes and social events can be disconcerting at times. My wife and I discuss wardrobes for an upcoming wedding. Should we spend hundreds of dollars on a suit or dress that will only be worn once? I dig out old clothes, try on new clothes, send pants to the tailor for adjustments. Then I paint a picture of Kathleen and myself in evening wear, bodies fused together, glamorous mannequins, more than a little absurd.

Fashion demands consensus, as does art. Some styles are too outrageous or too impractical for mainstream tastes. Street fashions fight back with unpredictable results.

The one thing artists cannot control is what people will connect with, talk about and share with others. Through art and clothes we participate in a world of change and, by participating, we influence the direction of that change.

Fashion by Alexander McQueen; sculpture by Antony Gormley

Fashion by Alexander McQueen; sculpture by Antony Gormley

 

If you’re interested in theories of fashion, the site “love to know” offers a nice overview.

Alexander McQueen: Fashion Rebel

Model Natalia Vodianova in the Oyster dress from Alexander McQueen's 2003 Spring:Summer collection 'Irere.' Photo by Peter Lindbergh

Model Natalia Vodianova poses in the Oyster dress from Alexander McQueen’s 2003 Spring:Summer collection ‘Irere.’ Photo by Peter Lindbergh

I recently came across the excellent bio, Alexander McQueen: The Life and Legacy by Judith Watt, Harper 2012. McQueen (1969-2010) was a fashion god who jettisoned clothing into an age of everyday spectacle and jarring culture clash. McQueen’s runway shows were multi-media extravaganzas that dumbfounded critics and electrified the fashion world. Watt’s biography succinctly overviews the designer’s various collections, interspersed with memories from colleagues and friends. I was struck by the range of McQueen’s inspirations, from punk rock to science fiction, from London’s gay club culture to Scottish history, from the popular mythology of Jack the Ripper to the heroics of Joan of Arc, from the horror films of Kubrick to the romantic films of Hitchcock, from installation art to the paintings of Goya, Bosch and Van Eyck, from modern materials to the natural forms and patterns of birds, butterflies, flowers, snakes, seaweed, moss and ice.

Plastic and LED. On the left, plastic and mud dress from Nihilism show, Spring/ Summer 1994. On the right: LED cyborg look, AW 1999-2000.

Low tech, high tech. On the left, plastic and mud dress from Nihilism show, Spring/ Summer 1994. On the right: LED cyborg look, AW 1999-2000.

In his early shows, when McQueen had little money for materials, he cut clothes out of clear plastic bags, sewing the pieces in layers and placing red mud and water between the layers to give a look of splattered blood and flesh. While the plastic revealed the models’ bodies, the mud obscured areas, adding a sense of trauma and mysterious inner life. In his rebellion from the norm, McQueen combined ripped clothes and tailored suits, elongated the torso and created strange cocoon-shaped silhouettes. He experimented with unusual materials such as cigarette butts in place of sequins, and had princess dresses splattered on stage with robotic paint machines. Later works featured stuffed birds in head-dresses, parachute capes billowing behind models in elevated wind tunnels, plaster-coated corsets, body armour and Armadillo shoes. Even the Alexander McQueen label attached to clothes was unusual, featuring a lock of hair encased in plastic.

Model Kate Moss strikes a dramatic pose in the glassed-in runway for the VOSS collection, Spring Summer 2001

Model Kate Moss strikes a dramatic pose in the glassed-in runway for the VOSS collection, Spring Summer 2001

His collections often had a narrative element. He turned runways into winter landscapes, dance marathons and glassed-in mental asylums. “Irene,” Spring/ Summer 2003, started with a film clip of a shipwrecked woman. She washes ashore in a spectacular oyster dress, setting off encounters with natives of South America, models adorned with red and white face paint, gold-seeking Spanish conquistadors in tight fitting leather body suits, and clothes saturated with the colours of the Amazon rain forest. “Plato’s Atlantis” imagines the aftermath of global warming, with humans evolving into semi-aquatic creatures to adopt to a new water-based world.

Jellyfish and fairy-tale. On the left, McQueen's "jellyfish dress" from Plato's Atlantis, S/S 2010. On the right, Daphne Guiness wearing a red silk coat pleated at the cuff from :The Girl who Lived in the Tree" collection, F/ W, 2008-09, photo by Michael Roberts for Vanity Fair.

Jellyfish and fairy-tale. On the left, McQueen’s “jellyfish dress” from Plato’s Atlantis, S/S 2010. On the right, Daphne Guiness wears a red silk coat pleated at the cuff from “The Girl who Lived in the Tree” collection, F/ W, 2008-09, photo by Michael Roberts for Vanity Fair.

 

The site AnOther posts an interview with Andrew Bolton, curator of “Savage Beauty” at the Met, 2011. Bolton explains the title of his McQueen retrospective: “Originally the idea came from a book called The Savage Mind by Claude Levi-Strauss, in which he describes two different types of people: ‘the bricoleur’ who is a jack-of-all-trades and ‘the engineer’ who is an artist. I thought both identities tally with McQueen. He looked everywhere for his inspirations and in that sense he was a bricoleur; but he was also a wonderful artist who had a great sense of virtuosity and incredible conceptual complexity, which was shown through his runway presentations. McQueen merged those two identities and that is where the title comes from. Also, in most of McQueen’s collections there were these dichotomies, whether it was to do with beauty and terror, lightness and darkness or life and death. The title is also a play on these contrasts.”

I also recommend the film McQueen and I. Though it’s a rather sad story of the friendship between McQueen and fashion editor Isabella Blow, the documentary offers insights from collaborators and features clips of several shows that hint at McQueen’s unique vision and compelling sense of theatre.

Collar and color. On the left: funnel necked dress, "Bellmer la Poupée," SS 1997. On the right: detail, silk chiffon rainbow dress, "Irere," SS 2003

Collar and color. On the left: funnel necked dress, “Bellmer la Poupée,” SS 1997. On the right: detail, silk chiffon rainbow dress, “Irere,” SS 2003

Fountains

Bernini. Fountain of the Four Rivers, Rome, 1651

We often encounter fountains in public places. Baroque structures with elaborate river gods and assorted monsters, placed in the heart of a city, attract attention and wonder. In his blog Quadralectic Architecture, Marten Kuilman comments: “The fountain is the messenger of the universe. Water acts as a mirror with an endless reflection and its movement prevents any type of stagnant contemplation.”

Kuilman describes four kinds of fountains: 1) the Arcadian, use of a water feature in garden design to inspire a spirit of tranquility and holiness, 2) monumental: grandiose structures that mark a place of community, as well as referencing gods and other figures of power and influence, 3) practical, many fountains served to provide drinking water for town dwellers, 4) playful, the fountain as a place to stimulate and refresh, disrupting the usual business-oriented attitude of many city dwellers. In Fellini’s film, La Dolce Vita, Sylvia played by Anita Edberg is a mesmerizing enchantress, wild for spontaneous adventure and full of unquenchable energy that the adoring and world-weary Marcello is dumbfounded by, even as she leads him into the waters of the Trevi Fountain, a moment of great romantic possibility and absurd deviance that ends in frustration and exhaustion.

Streams by Athena TachaThe playfulness of fountains could have a disruptive quality, as when in 1917 Marcel Duchamp submitted a urinal for inclusion in an art exhibition under the title, “Fountain.” Duchamp’s work was famously rejected; sparking a controversy with lingering questions about originality and context in the world of art. In her work Streams, 1975, contemporary Greek artist Athena Tacha, noted for her environmental sculpture, creates a delightful sense of cascading water simply by placing boulders at irregular points on a steep incline of public stairs in Oberlin, Ohio. A similar set of dancing stairs, without the rocks, and arranged as an amphitheatre, was designed by Tacha for the Muhammad Ali Centre in Louisville, KY in 2008.

David Bowie: Layers of Ghosts

Bowie poses with Cher on the set of her TV show in 1975.

Bowie poses with Cher on the set of her TV show in 1975.

In the days following David Bowie’s death. I listened to the songs “Life on Mars?” and “The Bewlay Brothers” from the 1971 album Hunky Dory. The lyrics intrigued me.

I was stone and he was wax so he could scream and still relax
Unbelievable … And my brother lays upon the rocks
He could be dead, he could be not, he could be you
He’s chameleon, comedian, Corinthian and caricature
Shooting up pie in the sky
Bewlay brothers

Life on MarsSurely there’s bit of self-portrait in this description. I found a link to a story written by Bowie for the Daily Mail, I went to buy shoes, I came back with Life on Marsdescribing 10 favourite underrated songs. Both “Life on Mars?” and “Bewlay Brothers” make the list. About the latter song, Bowie writes:

“The only pipe I have ever smoked was a cheap Bewlay. It was a common item in the late Sixties and for this song I used Bewlay as a cognomen – in place of my own. This wasn’t just a song about brotherhood so I didn’t want to misrepresent it by using my true name. Having said that, I wouldn’t know how to interpret the lyric of this song other than suggesting that there are layers of ghosts within it. It’s a palimpsest, then.”

I must write Merriam-Webster and suggest they add a new definition for palimpsest: layers of ghosts. The Hunky Dory album has its fair share of ghosts, along with a touch of Nietzsche, aliens, and tributes to other musicians. It’s this mixture of influences, delivered with glitter and angst, that gives Bowie’s work such a unique sense of modernity and other-worldliness.

Bowie helps transition us from the 60s world of peace, love and long hair to a Millennial world of sound and vision, mobile devices and remixed songs. Remixed everything. Among the countless Bowie tributes, I found this delightful illustration substituting Bowie for the Little Prince with the caption; “The man who fell to Earth is back amongst the stars. Rest in peace, David Bowie. Illustration/caption by Jarrett J. Krosoczka.”

Bowie as the Little PrinceThe musician starts the conversation and fans keep it going. On a recent CBC News story, we’re told that Canadian DJ Skratch Bastid’s remix of Bowie’s song, “Let’s Dance” has become a Facebook meme with over 8 million views in five days.

When I think of mash-ups and Bowie, his cut-up writing method comes to mind. Taking his cue from William Burroughs, author of Naked Lunch, Bowie used scissors and pen to spark new thoughts. I ask myself, what would a mash-up of Bowie lyrics look like? Let’s give it a try:

It’s a God-awful small affair
To the girl with the mousy hair (Life on Mars)

He lays her down, he frowns
“Gee my life’s a funny thing, am I
still too young?” (Young Americans)

“You got your mother in a whirl/ She’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl.” (Rebel Rebel)

“Are you OK?
You’ve been shot in the head
And I’m holding your brains” (Seven Years in Tibet)

I’m looking for a vehicle, I’m looking for a ride
I’m looking for a party, I’m looking for a side. (Candidate)

He says he’s a beautician and sells you nutrition and keeps all your dead hair for making up underwear. (Jean Genie)

You’ve really made the grade
And the papers want to know whose shirts you wear (Space Oddity)

So I’ll break up my room and yawn and run to the centre of things. (Sweet Thing)

News guy wept when he told us Earth was really dying. (Five Years)

“I’ll make you a deal like any other candidate.” (Candidate)

Seems you’re trying not to lose
Since I’m not supposed to win. (Win)

Oh no love! you’re not alone
You’re watching yourself but you’re too unfair (Rock n roll suicide)

Every chance,
every chance that I take
I take it on the road… (Always Crashing in the Same Car)

I’ve lived all over the world
I’ve left every place. (Be My Wife)

You will be like your dreams tonight. (Joe the Lion)

I’m the space invader. (Moorage Daydream)

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes
(Turn and face the strange) (Changes)

Then let it be, it’s all I ever wanted
It’s a street with a deal, and a taste
It’s got claws, it’s got me, it’s got you … (Sweet Thing reprise)

Multiple conversations. The search for experience. Exhibitionist finds relief in theatre, masks. The future looks bleak. Experience is filtered through news, media, entertainment. Distrust politicians. Rock ‘n roll is a collective experience. Fame is a trap. Keep dreaming. Space aliens. Nothing is permanent. Embrace change.

My final thought on Bowie: he doesn’t just change for the sake of change. He grows. He develops, he educates himself by traveling, working with gifted people, stretching himself through relationships, marriages, films, families. He stretches himself by renouncing a popular path for an uncertain path. He teaches us all how to become an alien and thrive.

Thanks Bowie, it’s been a blast.

Definition of a good book

Milton and Satan illustrated by Edward Sorel

Milton wary of Satan, New Yorker illustration by Edward Sorel

Poet John Milton defined a good book as: “The precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.” (Areopagitica, 1644)

The quote appears in Areopagitica, a defence of free speech written by Milton after visiting the famous astronomer Galileo in 1638. Galileo was then under house arrest in Italy, having been forced by the Inquisition to recant his theory that the earth revolved around the sun. The New Yorker article, Return to Paradise, June 2, 2008, describes Milton’s visit. The article contrasts the modernity of Galileo’s view of the world, with Milton’s rather more old-fashioned notions of God at war with his rebel angels. What I find interesting is that the English poet seeks out a scientist and in some ways sees him as a kindred spirit–a man struggling to understand and convey a picture of the universe.

In this post, I focus on Milton’s definition of a good book. The definition is one sentence charged with several metaphors and paradoxes. For instance, “precious life-blood” is a metaphor referring to the human body. In 1628, Milton’s English contemporary William Harvey published his book De Motu Cordis, outlining for the first time the precise way that blood circulated within the body. This “life-blood” contrasts with a “master spirit.” A spirit is immaterial: a personality, a way of thinking and being. The blood of a spirit or immaterial being is a paradoxical concept as ghosts usually lack physical attributes like blood. To modern ears, the phrase “master spirit” sounds pompous and ominous, emerging out of an era of masters and slaves. Slavery was not abolished in England until 1833, a century and a half after Milton’s death. However, Milton most likely meant “master” in the sense of “master of himself,” an independent thinker. The phrase “master spirit” also reminds me of the apprentice system. One is not born an artist; one learns to be an artist through experience and the mastery of a craft. Canadian critic Northrop Frye uses the phrase “the educated imagination” in much the same way. When Milton combines these two metaphors, “the precious life-blood of a master spirit” he suggests that books have a physical element that relate to the laws of nature and science, as well as a spiritual aspect that is more elusive but still shaped by tradition, upbringing and study.

Milton’s phrase “embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life” presents a fascinating mixture of associations. Embalming was practised by the royalty in Britain at this time. For example, King James I had his two-year-old daughter Margaret embalmed when she died in 1600. This same period saw a proliferation of funerary monuments, and the wide-spread use of epitaphs on graves, identifying the occupation and interests of the deceased, reflect a new belief in the importance of the individual. “Embalmed and treasured up” the writer acts as mortician and pirate. He is both preserver and thief, with his stolen observations of a particular time and culture. This buried treasure is hidden and the readers of a good book must uncover the rich secrets that lie within. There is a further implication that the value of a good book, like buried treasure, increases as it lives beyond the disappearance of the world in which it was created. That it can give “life beyond life” gives a book a kind of supernatural power. Through books, we move forward and backward through time and converse with the dead. Books promise fame and immortality to their creators, but anyone who reads a book written in the past, participates in this powerful exchange that exceeds the limits of a single life.

Milton uses the word “life” three times in his short definition. Life can mean vitality, as in “he is full of life.” There are kinds and degrees of life: “a life of action and purpose” or “a meager, frightened life.” When we say, “Tell me about your life,” we are asking for a story. A good book is above all else a good story. Ecology is the study of the interaction of many life-forms, as when we speak of “life on earth.” Life beyond life suggests resurrection and a religious state of nirvana or transcendence.

There’s a paradox in this as well. When Milton says, “life beyond life,” isn’t this the same as saying “life beyond death”? Life is also death. A good book is a recognition of this and also an escape from it. It is a recognition of the human condition, with an escape clause built in.

In summary, a good book for Milton is blood, spirit, monument, treasure and time capsule. It is life, but also death and an escape from death. That’s quite a definition.

Flipbook Fun

Here’s a great resource for teachers or anyone interested in making quick animations. Flip book! The short animations you make on this site can be saved as GIF files. Many successful gifs are designed so that the end returns to the beginning, making the sequence appear to run in a continuous loop.

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