November 30, 2006

Talk Among Themselves

by Jerome du Bois

The coprophagists are out again, sharing the waste of their words. Schadenfreude still holds sway, but we two stay above the fray; the "wrestling with pigs" cliché, don't you know. This city is for The Birds.

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November 24, 2006


Fashion Art Photograph © 2006 Jerome du Bois.

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November 22, 2006



Spirit Photography by Catherine King. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce in any form.

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November 21, 2006

The Desert As Wasteland

by Jerome du Bois

In Kerry Lengel's recent review of Melissa Martinez and Mary Shindell's "installation art" now up at Mesa Contemporary Arts, he/she writes:

Installation art means no constraints, other than the shape of the room. The work can be two- or three-dimensional, made of any material, including video, sound or anything else the artist can imagine. There are no rules, which, in an ironic twist, means the artists go outside the metaphorical box by being inside a literal one.

What's ironic is that neither artist does any such thing. The Dr. Ruth Tan Lim Project Room at MCA is set up for multimedia --video, film, sound, digital, and web-based work. (There are outlets in the ceiling.) The sculptures and drawings Martinez and Shindell created use none of these resources, and could have been set up in any room at MCA, or any gallery anywhere. Despite the title of the exhibition --"Out There: Unconventional Landscapes"-- they are completely conventional. (In the Coda, in an imaginary proposal, I'll describe how Catherine and I would have used the room.)

From Lengel's article, which is titled "Artists Blend Talents to Reimagine Desert:"

When the artists looked at the space, they brainstormed ways of working with it. Perhaps one would take the walls, the other the floor. In the end, though, they decided to divide the room in half, collaborating on the concept but not the physical art -- "Not that they would end up being one piece," Martinez says, "but that they would somehow . . . meet up in the middle."

They may have brainstormed, but not very much or for very long. In her half of the room, Shindell positioned three of the same kind of Lucite columns (with her drawings curled inside) she has exhibited elsewhere, and which you can see on her website. On the wall, high above the viewer's head, there's a giant red desert sunset photo, mostly obscured by more of her drawings, but it doesn't matter because we've seen the real thing hundreds of times.

The theme of the installation was supposed to be the two artists responding to the desert. But the desert is nowhere to be found here. Shindell's busily detailed drawings flatten all her vegetative subjects, embedding them in one-dimensional suffocation. And the Lucite tubes belong in a mall.

Lengel's description of Martinez's contribution is misleading:

On the Martinez half, a giant fiberglass tree rises from artificial turf. It is smooth, sleek white and bare, but on the wall behind it seems to cast a shadow of twisted black branches.

First, that's not the effect at all. It's just black paint on a white wall. And the white thing doesn't resemble a tree. It doesn't branch like a tree, and its extensions are thick as tusks. It looks like an enlarged section from a set of antlers. It's smooth (with no hint of bark) and shiny, and totally cartoony. It looks like playground equipment. (In fact, when Catherine and I were viewing the room on the day of the opening, it wasn't really open yet, but the guy at the desk let us wander around. He told us the setup was complete, except "They're going to put a long table up in front of the tree so kids won't be crawling all over it.")

And it's completely alien to the desert. But then, according to Martinez herself, the desert wasn't her inspiration, even though it was supposed to be.

"One of my favorite movies is Edward Scissorhands, and I love the really surreal, totally artificial, just freaky landscape that happens there," Martinez says. "When I first moved to Arizona, I was driving through downtown Tempe, and there was a pink house next to a blue house next to a white house with these perfectly manicured green-square lawns with these citrus tree balls. And I was like, 'Wow, that's totally Edward Scissorhands,' in that surreal, kind of creepy but beautiful, overly perfect way. So this isn't a desert landscape, but it relates to how I feel living here, in that it's kind of artificial."

Back in 1999 Catherine was living up in the North Valley, near a desert mountain preserve. She would take long walks, and sometimes she would draw or paint what she saw afterward. Here is one of the gouaches she did back then, which she calls "The Ironwood In My Mind." That is what a desert tree looks like --like it's had a life, not been extruded from a tube.

But it was so much easier for Martinez to fashion her smooth, simplistic, reductive "tree" than try to capture the challenges and sufferings of real living things in the real harsh desert. It's not her surroundings which are artificial, it's Martinez herself; she's got a fiberglas soul. In a follow-up article by Srianthi Perera, Martinez describes her piece in the most simplistic fashion imaginable:

Martinez works mainly in sculpture and her installation features the tree of life, a large, black tree with a raven symbolizing the darker side in the background and a white and smooth sculpted tree symbolizing "the face you put to the world" in the foreground.

"If you live knowing that this is who you are, good and bad, you embrace all of your qualities, and it doesn't come out when it's least expected, like road rage."

Perera doesn't mention the clunky white doves suspended from the ceiling, their wings thick as brick. They might as well be rubber duckies.

Shindell, who is a lot older, should know better, but she does no better than Martinez, either in "reimagining the desert" or explaining her piece:

"In the desert, two things are overwhelming --space and detail. There is huge vast space from one end of the spectrum and then you have the little tiny detail in the cactus. I'm trying to play off of both those things at the same time," she explained.

"Landscape artists give a kind of emotional response. I'm also going for the physicality of having the scene around you in a sensory way," Shindell said.

Emotional response? The whole setup, by both artists, is cold, astringent, and clichéd. As for "physicality" and "sensory," there is nothing natural in the entire exhibition, from the Lucite tubes to the digital prints to the fiberglas tree to the artificial turf. The desert is far from here.

And what was Mike Goodwin, the preparator, thinking? Was he just catering to a couple of fellow artists from the 515 Gallery / MADE Arts / eyelounge menagerie downtown, where he exhibits? He had to know, based on their earlier work, that these two were not really multimedia artists, and that they wouldn't be using the Project Room the way it was designed. His explanation is as thin as theirs:

"When our work is together, it has this resonance that I can't explain," Shindell says. "Melissa did some boxes with soil in them that were hung very meticulously from cables. And I had done this drawing in pen and ink, a real loose drawing of a (prickly) pear cactus. And her piece and my piece worked so well together, but I can't really describe why."

Mike Goodwin, a preparator at Mesa Contemporary Arts, also saw the connection and invited them to take over the installation gallery.

"It's kind of hard to explain because they're so different in their approach and in their materials," he says. "(It's) the respect they have for natural history and beauty, and they're doing it in an innovative and interesting way. . . . It's not your typical landscape or sculpture of an animal or a tree."

Respect? Innovative? Interesting? Oh, please. All three elements were missing out there.

Coda: Let The Spirits Move You

We saw this piece on the day it opened, and it's depressed me ever since; but I held off criticizing the "installation" because Catherine and I got excited about the Project Room, and were considering submitting a proposal. Then we found out that Goodwin was hooked up with the downtown people, so he probably wouldn't be favorably disposed towards us; and that the MCA is not currently considering proposals anyway. Ah, the closed loop again. That's how things stay boring in this Valley.

So we'll console ourselves by describing our imaginary proposal --Let The Spirits Move You-- here on our blog.

The Project Room is a cube open on opposite sides. From above it looks like this: [ ]. So we would install heavy black curtains over both openings. Inside, in the darkened cube, six DVD projectors suspended from the ceiling would be playing, on all six walls, coordinated slide shows of our spirit photography. There will be a couple of rows of folding chairs, back-to-back, and floor cushions as well. One half of the cube will feature the back yard, as in the banner collage "The Good Neighbors" above, and the other half will feature the little brick house itself. In the beginning, the backyard is bare of orbs and other phenomena, but as the DVD spins they gradually fade in, one by one, here, there, here, there, until all three walls are filled and overlapping. Slow, sad, instrumental music --violin, bowed-saw, and theremin intermingled-- plays throughout. On the other half, the panorama starts in the sky above the roof and gradually descends to the house itself and moves around its perimeter, catching cats and showing the transformations of doors and windows. All this would take hours.

(There would also be, in alcoves just outside both sets of curtains, computer and headpiece setups for users to browse a special website of the spirit photo archives and Catherine's narrative of her spirit photography journey.)

What's the point of the piece? To make you sad. To restart your heart. We are convinced that American culture is shot through with schadenfreude --casual cruelty, the enjoyment of the suffering of others-- and reflecting on the dead and their longing for embodiment will remind the viewers of their own fragile mortality, their tenuous contingency, their very human vulnerability. There, on those walls, but for the grace of this brief life, go all of us.

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November 19, 2006



Spirit Photography by Catherine King. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce in any form.

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November 16, 2006

The Importance of M and K

by Jerome du Bois

Last week, while rich people impressed each other at Christie's auction house, and news reports gasped about record prices for some useless human artifacts, I was reading about a couple of other human artifacts, M and K.

M and K appear in Peter Galison's science history book Einstein's Clocks, Poincaré's Maps, which is partly about the standardization of measurement. Like a Klimt or a Pollock, each is unrepeatable, each is unique, but neither is for sale. Their millions of replications, though, have meant more to the advancement of the human race --at least since 1889-- than all the Pollocks, all the Klimts, all the art, ever.

Those who created M and K treated their work with the solemnity it deserved. Let me quote Galison --at length.

Paris, Hôtel Des Affaires Étrangères, 20 May 1875, 2:00 PM. Represented by their plenipotentiaries, seventeen names will be put to a treaty . . . We are at the solemn signing of the Convention of the Meter. After years of negotiation, the High Contracting Parties now called into existence an international bureau of weights and measures. The new prototypes of the meter and kilogram it was charged with certifying would supplant the myriad of competing national measures, establish the relation between these gauges and all others, and compare results with the standards used to map the earth . . .

Signing the Convention of the Meter started, rather than ended, the process of distributing the meter. . . . For fourteen years, French engineers and British metallurgists hammered and smelted their way to a tough, durable iridium-platinum alloy.

While a British firm pounded these hard, pure bars into meter sticks with an inflexible "X" cross section, the French concentrated on producing an enormous "universal comparator" that would, by strict procedure, allow a standard length to be reproduced on another bar to within two ten-thousandths of a millimeter. It was painstaking, nerve-wracking work. When the British metal workers delivered their precious bars to the French, the operator at the conservatoire would set both the standard meter and the blank bar on the bridge of the comparator. Peering through a microscope, the operator would line up the one-meter mark on the standard. Then the operator would activate a lever, causing a diamond blade to inscribe a fine line precisely at the one-meter point on the blank. Carving subdivisions was just as difficult. The two microscopes would be set, say, ten centimeters apart. The operators would mark that length. Sliding the bar down, they would etch a second ten-centimeter length into the bar, and so on. To prepare the 30 standard bars that the international delegates would take home with them, the operators repeated this operation 13,000 times. The slightest slip with the diamond point meant starting over again with repolishing of the blank.

Finally, on Saturday, 28 September 1889, two years after Poincaré was elected to the Academy of Sciences, eighteen representatives of the contracting parties gathered in Breteuil for the final sanctioning of the meter. The president of the conference canvassed their votes --unanimous-- and then pronounced: "This prototype of the meter will from now forward represent, at the temperature of melting ice, the metric unit of length," while "this prototype [kilogram] will be considered from now on the unit of mass." All standards stood on display in the meeting room: meters sheathed by protective tubes, kilograms nested in triple glass bell jars. According to plan, each delegate ceremoniously picked a ticket from an urn, the number received assigning his country a meter stick, for which he offered a signed receipt. . . .

Later that afternoon, at 1:30 to be precise, the commission charged with depositing the international prototypes gathered in the lower basement of the Breteuil Observatory. There the delegates certified that the international prototype M would from that moment forward be enclosed in a case covered on the interior with velvet, lodged within a hard cylinder of brass, screwed tight, locked, and placed in the vault. Alongside M the standard bearers then prepared two "witnesses" for burial (meter sticks, not delegates). These metallic observers would forever testify, by the very conditions of their bodies, to anything that might befall M. In the same ceremonial interment, convention delegates sanctioned the kilogram, K, elevating and renaming it as the universal standard of mass. It too found its eternal resting place in the underground iron vault in the company of its witnesses. With two keys, and in full view of the delegates, the director of the International Bureau of Weights and Measures locked the case, secured the inner basement door with a third key, and bolted the exterior door with a fourth and a fifth key. At the conclusion of these solemn events, the president of the conference handed these latter keys in separate, sealed envelopes: one to the director of the International Bureau, one to the general guard of the National Archives, and the last to the president of the International Committee. From that time on, all three basement keys would be needed to enter the sanctum sanctorum.

This was a remarkable moment. M, the most precisely forged and measured object in history, the most individually specified humanmade thing, had become, by its burial, the most universal. Here was an object manifestly in France and yet not in France, religiously redolent and yet stridently rational, absolutely material and yet completely abstract.

Those last two sentences, with some modification, express the ambitions of many artists. And yet none have even come close to the accomplishments of a piece of metal you can pick up at the hardware store for a minute fraction of the cost of a Pollock or Picasso, a de Kooning or a Klimt.

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November 14, 2006

Images of Humanity at the Phoenix Art Museum

by Jerome du Bois

First were the people themselves, thousands of them streaming into the new expanded entrance and milling around the new four-story galleries. It was encouraging that so many people seemed to be interested in art; less encouraging was that most of them were dressed for volleyball, or watching television, or mowing the lawn. I wager that even when they have to pay the ten bucks, they'll still wear the flip-flops. No wonder we got so many dirty looks.

Second, and more abstractly, were all the names fastened to so many diverse surfaces. Not just Somebody's Outdoor Sculpture Garden, or Somebody's Atrium, or Somebody's Wing, but Somebody's Visitors Desk. As Catherine and I settled in for Dennita Sewell's stilted fashion talk in Somebody's Lecture Hall, we noticed that each seat in our row had a little plaque with the name of somebody in Jerry Colangelo's extended family embedded in the arm. Little jerryclones all in a row. Neither Catherine nor I checked out the restrooms during our visit, so I suppose we missed out on the Brady Roberts towel dispenser and the Jim Ballinger commode. . . . Such desperate vanity, as if everyone should try to be a brand.

Third were the objects in the outdoor sculpture garden. Right outside the old front entrance --I couldn't believe my eyes at first-- was Eric Fischl's Tumbling Woman from 2002, his "tribute" to the horror of 9/11. I don't know if this was the actual one which got kicked out of its original venue because it made so many people mad, or if he had the gall to edition it, but I was astounded that somebody at the museum thought it was appropriate to purchase. I thought that damned insult to human dignity had been melted down already. "She isn't tumbling," Catherine notes. "Tumbling sounds like gymnastics. Those poor people had to choose which way to die."

Next on the path was one of Joel Shapiro's ridiculous stick pieces, looking like discarded support armature from a larger, better Mark di Suvero sculpture. Then came the two big Robert Arneson bronze heads, stuck in the ground at diagonals to one another. The titles had something to do with pain, but the heads were just like all the other vanitas pieces this guy churned out as the Dale Chihully of ceramic portraiture. Behind one of the heads was a big fat ugly bronze woman, created in 1935 by Gaston Lachaise, and finally cast in 1991. His Standing Woman, done over and over, finally got real fat. Fatter than Alice Roi, fatter than Candy Crowley. Fat and lumpy and, apparently, proud of it. It reminded me of a lot of the people (both male and female) milling around the museum, actually, though mercifully they had clothes on.

Across the way, near the administration building, we could see five or six headless bronze figures, just frontal shells of people, tilted forward in a row, running --I can't say "headlong," can I?-- running one behind the other. I think they were by that Polish sculptor Magdalena --what? Yadayadaetcetera?-- but we didn't get close enough to read the label. Why would we? To be inspired? Moved?

At the end of the Garden was a big bronze egg, tall as a man. I wonder if it was a goose egg.

Fourth were all the objects and paintings in the new gallery. There was not a single dignified, inspiring image of humanity on any of the levels. We got Eric Fischl's idiot boy with the oranges; vapid Philip Pearlstein flesh tones; some fool in a dinghy rowing through blue impasto; Peter Saul's dayglo parody of a Dutch master painting; Raymond Saunder's garage-sale wall garbage; a flatfooted Vernon Fisher blackboard; somebody's mirrored platform with mirrored objects on it, like a low perfume counter. Anish Kapoor's shiny black double-scoop ovoid seemed like pure pop wow but nothing else. It was not, to use Catherine's term, enlifting. I would rather have been looking at a jet engine.

But the absolute worst piece, and the one which ruined all my hope that anyone at that museum has any respect for people, was the realistic sculpture of the naked mole rat mounting a woman's face. It was called, we think, Embrace, but "That's no embrace," Catherine said. "It's rape." Presumably all the glitterati at the pre-opening gala saw the thing, and nobody --none of those names on the walls, or Jim Ballinger, or anybody else-- had a problem with a feces-eating animal having its sexual way with a human being. I wonder what Kathryn Blake, the museum's education curator, will tell the touring schoolchildren about that piece.

Perhaps we should be thankful they didn't have any Kara Walkers, or Paul McCarthys, or anything by the Chapman brothers. But give them time, because now they've got the money, the space, and no bottom.

[Preemptive note to any anonymous or pseudonymous emailers: by not signing your real names you reveal yourselves as cowards, and your words as weightless. So don't bother.]

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November 12, 2006

New Art: Principia Physichedelica

Principia Physichedelica. 30" x 44". Collage with acrylic, colored pencil, and vintage metallic wallpaper on Arches paper. © 2006 Jerome du Bois.

Detail here.

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November 11, 2006



Spirit Photography by Catherine King. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce in any form.

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November 10, 2006

The 911 Call: Still On The Line

Photo © Catherine King.

Text for this photo is here.

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November 08, 2006



Spirit Photography by Catherine King. Al rights reserved. Do not reproduce in any form.

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Einstein and the Cats

by Jerome du Bois

Speaking of cats, I finally caught up with Faster Than The Speed Of Light, by João Magueijo, published in 2003. In the first part of this account of his variable-speed-of-light theory, he includes a short anecdote about Einstein that I don't want to forget, so I'm transcribing it here in my diary. Magueijo is such a smark-aleck the story may be aprocryphal, but I doubt it. Scientists can be strange. Page 71:

While Einstein lived in Berlin, working as a patent office clerk, he did his research work in a small study away from his home. In this study he kept a large number of cats, of which he was very fond. However the cats at times could be rather burdensome, scratching persistently at closed doors, demanding to roam freely throughout the house. He could not leave all the doors open, so he decided to cut holes in the bottom of the doors, producing cute little cat doors.

In that year he had roughly equal numbers of large and small cats. Therefore, quite logically, he cut out two holes in each door: a large one for the large cats, and a small one for the small cats. It made perfect sense.

It's a sweet story.

[Next book in my study of the physics of time, which I've already begun: Einstein's Clocks, Poincaré's Maps: Empires of Time, by Peter Galison. It's about simultaneity and electrosynchronization, the coordination of clocks. As Julian Barbour might say, you can talk abstract time all day long, but in the real world it comes down to clocks and rods, rods and clocks.]

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November 07, 2006



Photography by Catherine King. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce in any form.

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November 06, 2006



Spirit Photography by Catherine King. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce in any form.

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Spirit Photography by Catherine King. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce in any form.

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November 04, 2006



Spirit Photography by Catherine King. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce in any form.

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Spirit Photography by Catherine King. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce in any form.

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November 03, 2006



Spirit Photography by Catherine King. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce in any form.

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Spirit Photography by Catherine King. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce in any form.

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November 02, 2006



Spirit Photography by Catherine King. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce in any form.

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Spirit Photography by Catherine King. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce in any form.

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November 01, 2006



Spirit Photography by Catherine King. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce in any form.

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Spirit Photography by Catherine King. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce in any form.

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