Saturday, November 29, 2008

argumentation, three

I rarely come down so judgmentally on a show as I have on “Crop Circles, Cosmograms, Psychogeographies,” which means it must embody some significant truth I haven’t acknowledged. We respond most vehemently to that which touches upon our deepest unresolved internal questions.

And my reaction seems to involve the difference between evocation and evidence.

The traditional saying is that the Maker of the Universe is beautiful and loves beauty. And by and large, the geometries of the world’s cultures are beautiful in the same way that an equation in physics is beautiful: an “elegant” equation is one that looks right, that has a level of symmetry and balance and repetition that is absent from the equations that solve the problem okay, but seem to have something wrong with them nevertheless. (At least, this is the example I remember from my freshman physics textbook of what led physicists to keep questioning interim mathematical solutions, with a couple of equations laid out on the page as examples of why one was more elegant than the other.)

I suspect that that old-fashioned fundamental mathematical elegance has been replaced in contemporary science as in contemporary culture by something much more rambling and tentative-looking, but I wouldn’t know.

So I need to back up to more traditional assertions, such as that we come after not only the hideousness of Auschwitz and the world’s other systemic barbarities, but after Nietzsche’s assertion that “Truth is ugly! We have art in order not to perish of truth!”

So contemporary cosmograms are really considered by their makers as bodies of evidence, like the documentation of alien abductions, which are also pretty much ugly affairs in which the aliens have very little in common with our own sense of aesthetics.

And of course, aesthetics is so intensely a matter of what is being regarded and within what system of discourse. Entomologists and herpetologists have a different scale of beauty in general, but given time and contemplative energy any of us can learn to see the beauty in a rhinoceros beetle, at least, if not in the more workaday species that are the insect world’s equivalent of the English sparrow and its drably functional protective plumage.

But this doesn’t change the fact that the occultists back in the twentieth-century day could lump together the visual productions of Egypt and Oceania and sub-Saharan Africa and Europe and Asia because they perceived a common love of beauty where H. P. Lovecraft and his ilk were wont to see cyclopean horrors and such. (In that, the occultists more resembled the artists of French modernism finding beauty in flea market castoffs, and not the writers of horror fiction, who seem to be firmly in the cast of liking good old sensibly ugly architecture and art because it allows them to experience a pleasurable shudder at the exotic and the anomalous. In fact, horror and sci-fi as genres seem wedded to a love of the irremediably ugly, if the aesthetics of -con art shows are any evidence.)

Today we live comfortably with all forms of the aesthetic; we seem able to enjoy fussily elaborate Baroque serving dishes and fuzzily elaborate funk ceramics and elegantly simple Zen gardens and the elephantine follies of the Enlightenment’s estates, alongside the productions of the rock painters of prehistory.

And we demand rather literal anomalies before we get interested in the physics rather than the aesthetics of all these things.

Joseph Campbell called this the age of comparison, and it obviously is when we get throwaway books with titles like The Pocket Guide to the Afterlife: 91 Places Death Might Take You.

The implication is that we don’t believe in any of the 91 places cited (well, maybe in 90 of them; I haven’t looked at the book, only Suzanne Van Atten’s capsule summary of it in the AJC). But the writers (Augusta Moore and Elizabeth Ripley) are interested enough in what people have believed and do believe about the topic that they have compiled a list of the various things that people have thought.

And the underlying assumption again is that truth is ugly, and art is beautiful but not true. And that previous generations confused art with truth.

Carl Jung and his disciples tended to ignore the aesthetic qualities of the evidence they were presenting for underlying psychic structures. At best, the most sensitive of them suggested that there had to be a reason why modern mandalas were so often ugly as sin where traditional mandalas had had geometric elegance or elaborated styles of beauty.

Well, actually it has been a long time since I read Man and His Symbols. and I hesitate to accuse the Jungians of the same disease that afflicts psychologizers in general, most of whom wouldn’t know beauty if it came up and bit them in the ass. Which it is perfectly capable of doing, ass-biting being as potentially beautiful or ugly as any other form of human or non-human activity.

So we come back to the business of crop circles, which are often beautiful in a very traditional form.

What makes them intriguing is that otherwise, they are largely non-traditional. They bear resemblances to little emblems carved in ancient rocks, and to mazes found not in the landscape but on the floors of medieval cathedrals. The Long Man of Wilmington and the White Horse of Uffington are anything but geometric; they sprawl, freeform, across the landscape. The rather different Cerne Abbas Giant is a hill figure that may actually date from no more than a few centuries ago, the evidence suggesting that a landowner may have had it cut into the turf as a personal fantasy in homage to the hill figures that the antiquarians were then publicizing in their books on the curious ancient survivals of Britain.

And all these Celtic habits of mind share the features of Celtic art that go in for organic elaboration (within what turn out to be geometric forms of order when followed far enough, but their tendency is to spill all over the place).

Crop circles do have certain kinships with the shapes created for English seasonal festivities (many of which were invented in the wake of the English Reformation to replace the banned festivals of Roman Catholicism), and for all of their worldwide occurrence, crop circles do seem to be a distinctly British and mostly English phenomenon. The crop circles from some of the outlying countries are such pathetic fakes that they suggest ineptitude on the part of their makers, or else a singular inability to see what it is that makes crop circles mysterious in the first place.

And like alien abductions, crop circles are a phenomenon of very recent vintage. Just as nobody was abducted by insectoid creatures until recent decades (though they were abducted often enough by much sexier queens of fairyland or terrifying non-insectoid goblins), nobody had their grainfields trampled into geometric patterns in the night, either. Or if they did, they kept it very quiet, or they didn’t notice it because they had no airplanes or didn’t climb the adjoining hills. (That line of thought raises the question again of why ancestral cultures wanted to trample out elaborate designs in the landscape that couldn’t be seen properly until the age of aviation, even if they could be discerned dimly from the highest elevations in the vicinity.)

So of course crop circles play into the deepest psychic whatevers of human beings, the whatevers that led them to make cosmograms and to project meaning into them. And the circles are inserted into landscapes that had a different resonance, an emotional resonance that the Romantic painters in Britain from Samuel Palmer to Paul Nash captured brilliantly.

But it is precisely the non-organic nature of the crop circles that makes them so notable. Whatever imaginative faculties they tap into, they are exactly the ones that organic nature doesn’t, at least not naturally. Nature’s geometries need books like D’Arcy Thompson’s On Growth and Form to become evident to the average artist.

Has anyone written a history of the crop circle? There must be dozens such books in existence, yet I don’t recall when the first crop circle appeared, whereas we all remember the birth of the age of UFOs on June 24, 1947 (about the time that the Nag Hammadi documents and the Dead Sea Scrolls were leading the postwar imagination off in quite other directions). [There is, of course, a Wikipedia entry regarding the first crop circles to be reported back in the 1970s, which only reinforces the "no big deal" quality of the initial sightings in England, as distinct from the 1966 "once and then not repeated" UFO-related crop circle in Australia—just a plain old circle such as would be made if you plopped a big disc down on top of a crop.]

For some reason, the crop circle as historical phenomenon hasn’t been documented with the same rigor that the successive waves of Egyptomania have been (to cite only one cultural phenomenon that has more recently been subject to historical investigation). Just as the interactions of the culture with the perceived mysteries of Egypt are subject to precise dating, the interactions with the perceived mysteries of the crop circle must be as well.

And perhaps Ronald Hutton will take up the topic once he gets done with enlightening us about the history of how the Druids were re-imagined or become the subject of new fantasies in every successive generation since their heyday.

We need a greater number of analytical histories of fantasy and the fantastic. But for now we should stick with the question of why our present-day acts of analysis have so little to do with beauty.

(I am known, on the joculum blog, for this kind of digressive essay. Beat with me. Or bear with me, as the case may be, my love of the Freudian typographical error also being a characteristic of that blog.)

Crop circles are new. That is one question that is insufficiently considered; why would someone decide to start making them (although the books on things like the Nazca lines and other things meant to be seen from the skies might be a sufficient provocation to acts of artistic creativity)? [There are precursors, but few and far between.]

Crop circles are also, most of them, rather beautiful. This is in contradistinction to the ones commissioned to advertise beer or to the parodies that are portraits of talk show hosts.

And the art at Eyedrum created in response to such phenomena is, by and large, distinctly unbeautiful. It is almost atypically asymmetrical and/or anti-visual, in response to phenomena that are extraordinarily symmetrical and devoted to retinal as well as conceptual pleasures.

That, in itself, ought to be a subject for investigation. “Crop Circles, Cosmograms, Psychogeographies” is itself a revelatory form of psychogeography in its resolute ugliness. If it evoked mystery, or if it seduced us into skepticism, that would be one form of revelation. That it instead just sits there, yet obviously satisfies every one of the artists who made work that is included in it, is a topic worthy of long meditation. For if many people don’t think the show is evidence of our present imaginative poverty, then that too is important (as in Wittgenstein’s socially insightful philosophical analogy of the bureaucrats whose job it was to record the occupations of all the residents of a community, but who had to realize the importance of recording the numbers of residents who were doing nothing at all.).

If a show shows us that we don’t even get what it is that we don’t get, that too is a fact of some significance.

In other words, those who unthinkingly lump crop circles in with alien abjections (I meant to type “abductions,” obviously) and such like are literally overlooking their most obvious feature. Even if they were made by aliens, they would be made by aliens with more of an artistic sensibility than your run-of-the-mill instruments-up-the-ass alien investigators. Assuming that all of this is just an outpouring of the collective imagination of humankind, why the difference in phenomena according to geographic and cultural location? Why, in the same way that Haitians are inhabited by loas and Manhattanites by their own inner demons, do anomalous phenomena postwar show such culturally specific structures? Especially since these days the loas are everywhere (at least since William Gibson sussed them out in the early days of cyberpunk) and Frantz Fanon was one of the great pioneers of cross-cultural psychoanalysis in the Caribbean. Popular weirdnesses are behind the curve in the latter days of the age of comparison.

So is it that folktales and their ilk are always inherently more conservative phenomena? Are crop circles and the like really just the retro defense of would-be integral cultures, an attempt to incorporate liminality in ways that comfort by their very strangeness, in the same way that myths of black helicopters comfort their believers because they fit the anomalous into accepted models of things that actually exist? (But there is considerably more cultural-studies writing on that topic, so I leave it to one side. Beauty and ugliness and their successive discontents is enough of a subject for one rambling essay. And I do not believe that the answer to the preceding two questions is “Yes.”)

Blogs may be more akin to private journals with megaphones than useful contributions to public discourse. Or as was said of a certain group of thinkers in antiquity, when they were speaking of things that were profound, they were so unclear as to be of no use to anybody; but when they were speaking of things that were simple, what they said was perfectly clear but so obvious as to be of no use to anybody.

argumentation, two

It is almost Advent, and for the Christian world the beginning of the celebration of one of the more spectacular interventions of Otherness into the workaday life of a planet that was once more marvel-ridden than it is now. If angels announced the miraculous birth to sheepherders hanging out keeping the product from getting itself killed by its own stupidity, well, there was another angel who occasionally stirred up the waters of Siloam right in the capital city, to the benefit of the first invalid to slide into the suddenly healing waters.

Nowadays, it seems that the annunciations come from inner voices or invasive insectoid aliens, and the signs from the sky come in the form of elaborate geometries stomped into the flattened stalks of the world’s grain fields.

Hence Robert Cheatham’s ambitious show at Eyedrum (viewable for exactly one more day at the time I finally post this), “Crop Circles, Cosmograms, Psychogeographies.”

Cheatham is fascinated by the divisions between the skeptics and the believers, and the nature of the evidence that they confront. Crop circles are sometimes made by teams of artists openly, but the ones that show up in a single night are often so elaborate that it is difficult to believe in the reticence of any artists capable of doing all this in a very few hours in the dark, even with the lights that are sometimes noticed as accompanying the phenomena.

But we have been assured by a quite paradoxical circle-maker that it can all be done under cover of darkness in the time allotted, using simple equipment, so the speculations I wrote in my first draft of this ought to be reproduced in brackets:

[If the crop-circle artists really do work on this scale on a regular basis and remain completely anonymous by choice, we have the equally fascinating question of what they are up to and why they are willing to turn down the chance to make their fortune by replicating the things on global television. Who would kill themselves with the effort season after season for no apparent reason except the enjoyment of bamboozling the gullible? It would require outright psychosis to energize so many artists for so many years for the perverse pleasure of pulling off a long-running joke. And yet not one of them has come forward to offer a reasonable explanation, even though other teams have confessed to creating some of the simpler productions (and of creating some elaborate crop circles over a rather longer stretch of time, with the advantage of daylight in which to execute the mapped-out designs).]

I have belabored the case of crop circles because they replicate the geometry that accompanies today’s reinventions of occult emblems. There is great fascination with the cosmograms of Africa and the African diaspora, which collided in the Caribbean with the geometries of Freemasonry to create still more emblems of the world’s mystery. There is an equally great and longerstanding fascination with the Hermetic emblems of the Renaissance proto-scientists such as Athanasius Kircher, for whom the world could be blazoned forth in diagrams that were meant to be at once a cosmology and an incipient physics and a map of spiritual desire.

And such books as The Golden Game have been rich sources for reproductions of the allegories of alchemy, in which proto-chemistry was symbolized by lions and kings and queens and sexualized vessels and journeys amid the trees of Eden.

But in the 21st century nobody can quite confess to liking all this stuff if they intend to do serious art or even seriously lowbrow art. Irony dies regularly, but sarcasm lasts eternally.

So the spirit of sarcasm reigns brutally over the show at Eyedrum, the ugliness and malproportions of a good many of the works making clear their intent to ridicule the rubes. Others seem interested in what makes people believe in the plainly impossible, and their combinations of imagery are a bit more sympathetic.

And still others seem to be genuinely committed to creating contemporary models for vision.

But nothing lives up to the precursors, or even comes close to comprehending them if we have only the visual evidence from which to judge. We would rather see the originals in ethnographic photos or in the reconstructions that have traveled through the world’s museums, or just page through the books on our own.

If the show seemed to be getting at the depths of delusion, or of transmitting the psychologically charged secrets of sacred geometry, it would be easier to spend time with it. But it seems to be doing none of the above.

Why? How come such a naturally deep topic, from which the Jungians got a whole secularized metaphysic not all that many decades ago, yields such a sparse conceptual and visual harvest in this case?

Have we simply lost the capacity to feel our way into the subject? Do we defend ourselves against the threat of ridicule by going overboard in our own satirizations, or do we try too hard to update the designs that were created for depths of the human personality that probably rest more in slowly changing biological substrate rather than the shifting tastes of personal history?

Tom Zarrilli comes closer to creating something that communicates the psychogeography of dreaming, as he states. But the final category of psychogeographies sits uneasily beside the cosmograms and crop circles, even if the invented inventories of ley lines try to superimpose an occult meaning on the landscapes of Britain that are already charged to the brim with the magic of natural shapes and flora. The fields of Samuel Palmer’s Shoreham are a more magical entity than any crop circles imposed upon them ever could be. (Had I the time and energy, I’d try Photoshopping crop circles into Samuel Palmer’s etchings, and perhaps someday I shall do so. It would be a hilarious way of making my point.)

Anyway, Zarrilli remembers his childhood in an American tropical zone that no longer exists, and offers up visual fragments from which dreams take their beginnings of responsibilities. (Allusion to Delmore Schwartz there, sorry.)

Nigel Ayers’ Bodmin Moor Zodiac is a similar homage to psychogeography, reminiscent of the figures supposedly laid out upon the land surrounding Glastonbury, but once again, the visuals fail us. The black and white photographs in old books about the star gods of Glastonbury are more evocatively uncommunicative than Ayers’ pieces, and Paul Nash’s paintings and photographs of British landscape are more evocative than either.

And Ruth Laxson’s “God Dolls” in her recent show at Marcia Wood Gallery are probably more genuinely deconstructive and reverent when it comes to how and why we shape imaginary structures and the creatures with which we populate them.

For that matter, Marc Brotherton’s works currently at Callanwolde are so much stronger than his pieces in the Eyedrum show that we might profitably wonder what has gone wrong when the topics of imaginative projections of deep meanings enter into the equation—hard to define the problem.

I had originally noticed the accidental closeness and written this post to come out at exactly 1111 words. I am sure it no longer does so.

let the arguments begin, one

Robert Cheatham and I may be fated to produce shows in which the critics complain that the art tells a different story from the one we have set out as curators to tell. And of course, we can complain rightly that the critics have missed the point.

I am sure that I have fundamentally misread some of the artists in “Crop Circles, Cosmograms, Psychogeographies” because I don’t like their art. I have misread others because I am trying to force them into a model that they are not presenting, and neither is Cheatham.

I am probably more like a disappointed lover who arrives with expectations and comes away disgruntled because the reality doesn’t live up to the constructions of the imagination based on past models. But of course the past models are (1) in the past and (2) constructed for purposes that we may misconstrue through a haze of exoticism. They may have looked rather workaday and drab to their contemporaries, whereas we see their underlying geometries and a loveliness that is lovely when compared with the conventions of the present day, not those of their own day.

So I feel like an elderly curmudgeon, but so be it. I feel the show doesn’t tell me what I wanted to know. It is useful to combine people who are making purely ironic comments, people who are creating a belief without belief, beyond belief (to quote Wallace Stevens’ familiar lines), and people who are creating imaginary structures as a tool of analytical investigation.

But then we have to figure out the relationships on the one hand, and the adequacy of the effort on the other. And Cheatham certainly gives it his best shot.

I probably ought to go into his essay line by line and try to engage in a dialogue. But I can’t.

The posts that appear are substantially the same as when I wrote them, save for a couple of minor surgeries. I think I may have left yet another post in draft form and will resurrect it appropriately.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

the counterforce continues, the suppressed post commenting on the preceding ones

(I mean the succeeding ones, not the preceding ones, for as it turned out, this slightly expanded draft post was posted in the order in which it was placed in the list as a saved draft.)

A day's perusal of the state of documentation on crop circles is most curious. John Lundberg is the longtime circlemaker who insists he has presented enough technical information on his website and elsewhere to show how anyone could produce the most complex of the circle designs yet laid down, using minimal equipment. He ridicules anyone who considers the circles to be necessarily of other than ordinary human origin.

That said, his posts on go on to describe very odd phenomena of light and energy that have taken place while he and his cohorts were in the process of making the circles, and goes on to describe them as what he says that Rob Irving calls "temporary sacred sites" in what Lundberg himself calls the "psychic landscape" of Wiltshire. In other words, Lundberg is one of the declared circle-makers who believes that something more than simple trickery is going on, and that he is "part of it," as he puts it.

Nigel Ayers' presentation of the Bodmin Moor Zodiac in his book for sale on seems to be something of the same sort, with a postmodern twist. And this is where, as we learn from Wikipedia, the "psychogeography" of Robert Cheatham's show comes into play, courtesy of this Situationist takeoff on the probably equally imaginary Glastonbury Temple of the Stars:

"In the walks around the M25 motorway documented in psychogeographer Iain Sinclair's 2003 novel London Orbital, the walkers trace the mythical Kingston on Thames Zodiac.

"In 2006, artist Nigel Ayers began to develop the idea of the Bodmin Moor Zodiac as a form of spatial detournement. This was an idea derived from developments in Land Art and Locational Media, influenced however by urban-based Situationist and Letterist theory. Over the course of a year, Ayers carefully explored the outlines of zodiac figures perceived and plotted on large-scale maps and aerial photographs of the moor. The newly-drawn 2006 figures are remarkable and make a break from earlier mooted terrestrial zodiacs on Bodmin Moor and elsewhere as they actually resemble a conventional zodiac as outlined on a star map."

And this is the description of the Bodmin Moor Zodiac, which doesn't look like much when displayed on a gallery wall but is remarkably impressive when presented as though it were the rediscovery of a long-extant astrological design (shades of the original website for The Blair Witch Project):

"The Bodmin Moor Zodiac is a massive astrological design measuring twelve miles across, impressed on the landscape by Mesolithic nomads, waiting to be digitally rediscovered in the 21st century. This is a remarkable story of old legends revived, mythological scenes deconstructed and forbidden knowledge brought to light. Nigel Ayers walks the secret paths of Bodmin Moor compulsively and decodes the hidden language of the Cornish landscape like no other rambler. The Bodmin Moor Zodiac transforms our sense of Cornwall, as Ayers creates strange trajectories between place and hyperspace, from the Celtic Otherworld to digital media, from Brown Willy to the Planet Venus. This book is what literature should be about; intensity of language, deranged visions and cultural de-programming."

So we have a double vision that makes William Blake's version of it look sick. Except that Blake shared the notion of a fourfold vision that was to be twofold always. ("May God us keep / From single vision, and Newton's sleep!") But the doubling is taking place in a world in which single vision has returned with a vengeance, both on the sides of the believers and their opponents. And there are ample quantities of single vision and single-mindedness to be found in the art of "Crop Circles, Cosmograms, Psychogeographies," whereas folks like Lundberg et al seem almost unsettlingly double and triple minded.

But Americans don't seem to know how to play that game very well. We come from folk who believed what they believed or found signs and portents that brooked of no alternate interpretation, but were type and antitype only.

the counterforce continues, two

I have decided on re-reading that I really need to re-think, re-imagine, and re-vise my ramblings regarding Robert's show.

I even revised this re-vision.

the counterforce continues

My first big essay in graduate school a couple of generations ago was titled “The Ironic Consciousness.” Dealing mostly with E. M. Cioran and Stanley Romaine Hopper, if I recall rightly, it bore an epigraph from Simone Weil to the effect of “Method of investigation: When we have thought one thing, try to see how the opposite might be true,” and one that is either from Soren Kierkegaard or based on him, to the effect that no matter what path we try to take to faith, “irony bars our way.”

I omit, if I remember to delete it, a self-indulgent autobiographical paragraph in order to skip to the point that irony was not only the quintessential European attitude ever since Nietzsche but the governing factor of American poets from Wallace Stevens on.

But Stevens’ “The final belief must be in a fiction” and “We believe without belief, beyond belief” had much in common with the incipient belief in the fictions of the inheritors of Marx mixed with Nietzsche such as the Situationists. There were a host of avant-garde movements that argued bitterly over the proper relationship between science and the imagination, and they were all alien to the cockeyed optimism of American innocence.

Situationist psychogeography, as transformed in Britain, consisted of belief-ful constructs that were constructed in a state of conscious disbelief. Wanderers with a purpose, they rediscovered the Surrealists’ state of the marvelous without marveling at it.

So Eyedrum’s “Crop Circles, Cosmograms, Psychogeographies” is about the state of the marvelous and those who marvel at it and those who only enjoy it and those who somehow manage to do both.

But the show raises so many problems for me that I have written several thousand words already, trying to locate the sources of my discontent, and will most likely continue to do so.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Crop Circles, Cosmograms, Psychogeographies

Robert Cheatham is properly pissed that nobody has given his thus-titled show at Eyedrum the analytical review it deserves. It deals, at its most basic, with how we make art regarding that in which we believe or do not believe, the more so when the belief is ridiculous to us or is essentially difficult to capture in a fully adequate form. And the show at Eyedrum seems to be mostly equal measures of the two responses. So it ought to be revelatory of the dimensions of skepticism and faith, or what makes us willing to suspend disbelief long enough to enjoy the fantasies of others versus what makes us willing only to shake our heads in disbelief.


Several thousand rambling words have been written by me as a preliminary reaction to the show, and, the Merciful Omnipotence being willing, said words will be posted in due course, more or less as composed.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

part two and a bit more, as usual

This past Sunday I went to the annual holiday opening at Reinike Gallery, a survey show of Charles H. Reinike III's recent paintings (with a considerable number of brand-new ones).

A painting titled The Golden Parachute, showing the Golden Calf appropriately decked out for a soft landing, is priced at ten million dollars, open to negotiation.

Again, one doesn't expect this sort of cheeky conceptual gesture in the refined surroundings of this exceedingly well-bred gallery, but Charles and Edna's New Orleans heritage includes the sort of politely puckish behavior that makes mere "mavericks" look like the Far-Western boors that they are. At the lower end of the Mississippi, the pirates and the aristocrats and the habitues of Congo Square knew how to mix it up right, at a time when polite society and cowboy culture were keeping worlds apart from each other in the rest of the country.

So it isn't surprising that this most genteel and soft-spoken of painters should elegantly recall the gesture of fellow Southern painter Clyde Broadway, who twenty years ago produced a painting of himself as a hitchhiker seeking a ride in a limousine with Hokusai geishas holding a bundle of irises, titled Goghing My Way? and priced at several million dollars. A commentary on the then-record price paid for a Van Gogh irises painting by Japanese investors, it was set off behind stanchions in an alternative-space show on the top floor of the IBM Tower / One Atlantic Center at 14th and West Peachtree.

The two commentaries on art and value are quite different, but what they share is a respect for painterly accomplishment. Both are well-made paintings, not cartoons, and both hold up well without the conceptual accompaniment, which nevertheless transfers them into a different genre of sociopolitical commentary.

The South seems to exult in this sort of offbeat between-the-categories output. It isn't fashionable and doesn't set out to be.

After Reinike, I went to Beep Beep Gallery to view "Majestic Hours," collaborative drawings by Sam Parker and Joe Tsambiras. These are of another distinct genre, sharing more of the sensibility of an internationally distributed lowbrow movement, with a degree of cross-cultural literacy that is also found across international boundaries though this version of it seems more specifically American.

We get flashes of allusions such as the Hindu "thou art that" (tat tvam asi, if you recall) and a Greek text I can't translate, or even adequately transliterate because I'm not sure of the orthography. But these allusions are scattered in between complex references to more contemporary visual sources, and put in the service of a thoroughly fashionable transgressive consciousness. Parker and Tsambiras transcend the adolescent humor of much artwork in this genre, but these drawings abound in expectoration, regurgitation, dripping daggers, multiple skulls, medieval battle axes, random cables and sockets with snake bodies to match, and the occasional cheeseburger. It is enough to delight the connoisseur of the art of death metal or of Julia Kristeva's idea of abjection. And indeed, Deleuze and Guattari come in for favorable comment in the accompanying book, as a key to the whole forest of symbols, or labyrinth of signs.

Of course, Deleuze and Guattari are the key to "Majestic Hours" in the same way that Frank was the key to Bob Dylan's John Wesley Harding album, which he explicated by stamping on a light bulb with his foot and putting his fist through a plate glass window, if Dylan's liner notes of forty years ago are to be believed. (Which of course they are not, being a parody of literary explication that echoed the makers of Happenings even as it poked fun at the critics of Lionel Trilling's explanatory note for the irony-challenged....)

So here are two shows that scarcely anyone else would consider pairing. And indeed the gulf in sensibility is as significant as the commonality of a quirky sense of humor.

Which obviously is why I sort of like both of 'em, even though I might prefer to come down somewhere in between the quiet refinements of historical sensibility and the purveyors of smegma. Why people do what they do is one of my particular interests, and why audiences like one type of art more than another is part of the question a critic has to answer en route to finding ways to bridge aesthetic gulfs and suggest that certain genres could be handled differently, and others understood differently.

Monday, November 17, 2008

more news from the underreported countries

The above photo, labeled "Sarajevo 2008," is part of a current exhibition at the Swiss Architecture Museum in Basel (until December 28), for the information of those of you with travel budgets.

For the rest of us, the website reveals that the exhibition "BALKANOLOGY: New Architecture and Urban Phenomena in South Eastern Europe" covers a considerable range of contemporary architecture in five cities (Belgrade, Zagreb, Kotor, Prishtina and Tirana) in the countries traditionally identified as "the Balkans." However, the show's theory-based focus is "urban development in transitional and post-conflict situations, from Prishtina to Belgrade, where weak or missing institutional structures make it impossible to achieve the regulation of construction processes. The wild, volatile spread of informal building structures is the aftermath of the kind of urban crisis that follows social upheavals or wars. At the same time, independently of regional particularities, these urban developments display a new kind of urban form that is quite different from informal settlements in countries outside Europe."

In other words, the versions of uncontrolled urban development in the Balkans are both prototypical and distinct, which is the kind of situation I love to contemplate.

But I am not going there, so until I can figure out the most efficient way to acquire the twelve-euro catalogue, this summary will have to suffice:

the total range and then some, part one. (part two a bit later)

It is impossible, as I have said, for one person to visit all the art events taking place in metro Atlanta without access to an independent income, a reliable car, and considerable stamina. But sometimes MARTA and the kindness of friends serves as a substitute.

This past week I visited Connexion Gallery and Design Studio (, which describes itself as "in the heart of Dunwoody, on Mount Vernon Road, across from Dunwoody Village," and also describes itself as providing "a canvas for artists of different regions and cultural backgrounds to address contemporary issues and create a dialogue." Its current, consciously cross-cultural exhibition includes owner Zamila Karimi's meditative Iraq War memorial ("paying homage to our heroes") using the four elements of earth, water, fire and air in different forms. (On opening night, the water in question included slowly melting sheets of ice, now existing only as digital documentation, that contained laser-cut lists of the names of fallen American soldiers).

Connexion's goals are admirable, and the greatest obstacle to its bridge-building among cultures may be the danger of falling in between metro Atlanta art audiences in its mix of experimental and traditional aesthetics. The venture is the project of a firm specializing in architectural, interior and exhibition design with an emphasis on sustainability.

Friday, November 14, 2008

slowly it all gets done is doing an increasingly good job of sorting things out for us in the Atlanta artworld. However, we need to discuss how to reach the art audiences not yet habituated to the internet, and how to connect all the galleries, including those that are not to our personal tastes, with the audiences that would find them to their personal tastes. (I tend to defend galleries that believe in an informed version of beauty and galleries that believe in a reasonably well-crafted version of confrontational conceptualism, and there are other ones that I would prefer to overlook entirely but that still need to receive the kind of coverage that no one is currently do we produce a single publication that will link together the most media-savvy and the merely art-interested, while educating all sides if they choose to delve deeply enough? something for future discussion.)

Thursday, November 13, 2008

a meditation in three parts, three

So? Doesn’t this kind of enthusiastic overflow leave out entirely too many issues?

I deliberately omitted Oceanic, Native American and African art from consideration (and elided art beyond the seventeenth century in general) because the best Pacific Island holdings are in private collections, significant Japanese collections are not always on public display, and the region’s Native American sculpture is on site at Etowah and Ocmulgee as well as at Fernbank…all side topics from my main points regarding looking at the accomplishments of our planet’s population.

And the holdings of African art also deserve a level of discussion that would have taken us into entirely different realms of discourse. There are hybrid objects from the colonial encounter that are in the collection of the Carlos that raise a host of fascinating issues as well as being stunning aesthetic objects in and of themselves. (And we do know that the African cultures that created them have concepts about art that would translate well as “aesthetics,” lest any should sniff at the importation of alien analytical categories.)

Walter Benjamin wrote rightly that every document of civilization is simultaneously a document of barbarism, but the point is that it is still a document of civilization. Both the Tut and First Emperor shows give us interesting glimpses into the realms of misery required to create these incredible artistic accomplishments that were never meant even to impress other human beings, but to keep up appearances for the ruler in his afterlife. In Egypt, the intermediary bureaucrats could afford similar if smaller immortalities, and the royal building supervisor has a level of portraiture in his entombment that matches that of some of his social betters. The artisans laboring on the Emperor of Qin’s tomb complex at least got inscribed pottery grave markers, unlike the anonymous masses hewing wood and drawing water.

The misery and the anonymity does not diminish the creative accomplishment, which was not meant to pleasure the masses but has ended up doing so anyway.

And anyone who has ever signed a sufficiently humiliating work-for-hire contract knows all about anonymity; I looked all over the press folder for the Tutankhamun show for the name of the designer, and while the designer of the overall logo and look is probably named somewhere in the kit, it doesn’t really occur to us to single out her or him, any more than we look most of the time to see who did the photo shoot for the weekly advertising insert for Target or Walmart, wherein every once in a while some of the set-ups seem surprisingly beyond the call of aesthetic duty.

That we don’t know the gender of most of the world’s artists (though now we know much more than we once did) or how much they were compensated (though now we also know much more than we once did) does not negate the accomplishments of their imaginations working, so much of the time, against the odds.

It behooves us to fall in love with the objects they have left for us.

a meditation in three parts, two


Why would it be worth it, as the preceding post asserts, to chase after a jigsaw puzzle of pieces of world art in which some whole segments of the board are still missing, so far as Atlanta is concerned? (And I deliberately put some segments out of play because of all the extraneous issues they raise in terms of my argument.)

I realize I read world art (“read” as well as “look at”) the way I read the New York Review of Books: taking each isolated segment as an illuminating example (perhaps what the medieval Schoolmen would have called an exemplum, but I really don’t have time to go search Wikipedia to see if I’m right). Put together in terms of their connections and their instructive contrasts, the pieces reveal things about the amazing unity in diversity of the human species.

But of course what is revealed sounds fatuous when you start to spell it out, and that in itself is instructive. You can see why theoreticians of every stripe start reaching for general laws, including the general law that cultures cannot be meaningfully compared with one another because each culture is an autonomous structure. Which is, taken in isolation, as fatuously in error as the assertion that all cultures operate by an identical set of easily defined laws. We are dealing with an enormous set of variables, but not an infinite one.

But when I, personally, run around looking at art, I’m not thinking too much about how the Freudians or the structuralists or the…oh, if I start naming names on all sides, it only leads into thickets of dispute I’d rather not enter at the moment.

Actually, I’m reacting against the failures of imagination of smalltown kids and very-big-city kids who grow up to be dead-certain smalltown and very-big-city grownups, respectively.

By those two categories, I mean people who accept the world into which they were born, lock stock and barrel (a fossilized metaphor that could come from shopkeeping as well as from firearms, which is why I like it and refuse to look up its history).

Growing up in a small town, you pretty much decided that how things are done around you is obviously the best way to do things, the most entertaining way to do things, the most down-to-earth practical way to do things, what have you. Growing up in a very big city, ditto. Only in the very, very big city you have huge, comprehensive museums that reinforce the view that the way your town sees it is the only possible way of seeing things, because, dammit, you obviously got one of just about everything right there in the museum, laid out in cases with labels on them.

And folks from small towns who want to learn would come to the museums and traipse through the halls, wishing they understood why all the stuff in the cases is the way it is.

And that is why museum-studies people have spent so much energy in recent decades trying to undermine that kind of impression about the godlike museum…even while recognizing that these days they have to compete with other forms of entertainment at the same time that they are trying to undercut the old idea that they ever presented the Truth, the Whole Truth and Nothing But the Truth.

And when you break out of smalltown ways, you tend to do it one category at a time, or rather, you did before the digital age, when the field of perception expanded exponentially. I still remember how Fra Angelico in the Christmas issue of a magazine opened up a world that hadn’t been there before, as much as a Frank Lloyd Wright house did.

Traditional art education skips from the single-object revelation straight to the chronology and categorization of objects. (I resist the opportunity for clever, piquant examples.) And with enough determination, the most exquisite discoveries of the human eye and hand can be squeezed into the cramped categories of received ideas, although the best professionals still retain the sense of wonder felt by the rankest amateur. (And the absolute best communicate how it is possible to combine wonder with rigorous scholarship.)

And it’s rank amateurism for me to take delight in how divergent cultures, developing independently, take on the same sets of problems in different contexts, and solve them similarly and yet with utter difference. It’s more defensible to realize with surprise how much these supposedly autonomous cultures interpenetrate, so that Egyptian pharaohs can’t get their ritual objects made right unless somebody hauls lapis lazuli overland from Afghanistan. Which means in turn that it takes a lot of rule-making to keep the cultures at either end of the trade route from polluting one another with newfangled ideas as well as raw materials.

Because while cultures at large suffer from failures of imagination, the makers within them have always seen the possibilities in the new things they were seeing, and the realization that others saw them differently.

And yet so many discoveries are clearly indigenous to a culture: Even if vessel-makers create the same sinuous geometries to solve the problem of how to hold liquids attractively, strivers after forms of representation invent distinct visual conventions for translating into two dimensions the shape of a human finger or a lotus blossom. So it is delicious to look at lots of different ways of solving those problems, and to catch repetitions that seem as though they must have come about because there are only so many ways of solving that particular problem. And then to learn that many-thousand-mile-long trade routes existed in antiquity, objects and materials traveling overland and along coastlines until short enough distances of water permitted connections. There were long periods of time in which war and geography made connections impossible, and parts of the earth that never communicated with one another at all, but it is the uncertainty about the source of visual forms that makes their similarities and differences such a source of delight for a certain temperament.

And I suppose that temperament comes from growing up in a small town and knowing that there were lots and lots of things you just couldn’t get to and never would get to. Now the Internet makes an unprecedented number of them available everywhere on earth simultaneously, viewed live on webcam or reproduced actual size in segments over which your cursor can browse as the eye would in a market or museum.

But I realize that you aren’t responding to all this with the particular species of romanticized enthusiasm to which I seem to be prone as a onetime kid from Small Town South (Small Town South was the name of the notorious 1940s exposé of my home town by one of its native sons who went off to seek fame on the New York stage). Everyone has his or her own set of biographical circumstances, and those circumstances have enough parallels to allow the sociologists to drop us into categories.

But I still think it’s great that Atlanta, one of the cities that suffered so long from being one of the world’s latecomers and that still suffers from the anxious show of sophistication that characterizes the arriviste, for once offers an array of significant fragments that allows room for meaningful connections among the world’s artistic inheritances.

You could get a certain something even out of the random scraps of the Kress Collection and the dustily displayed bits of Egyptiana that were all that Atlanta had to offer once upon a time, but for once we have a range of diverse objects that renews one’s respect for the power and range of the human visual imagination. We have a rare chance to appreciate the immense number of ways in which the world’s artists seen their duty, and they done it. (I ought to do a Wikipedia search for the origin of that now seldom-cited idiolect, but I won’t. I think it may date back no further than Walt Kelly’s classic comic strip Pogo, making it as time-bound as the catchphrases originating in the shows of Comedy Central.)

Atlanta and the world: a meditation in three parts, one

At Last, After All These Years

Let the record show that in the waning days of the Bush Administration, it was finally possible for the determined seeker to get a certain amount of perspective on global art from the late Neolithic to somewhere in the mid-seventeenth century without leaving the city of Atlanta.

Granted, you have to cheat a little, by letting small numbers of objects represent entire regions of the world in a number of cases, and by excluding immovable rock paintings and artifacts from any number of cultures that used perishable materials, so that nineteenth century examples are taken to be emblematic. And you have to travel back and forth between several Atlanta locations to get much of a perspective.

But one could get a fair ways along in perspective-seeking just with the exhibition programs of the High and the Carlos at the moment, which is quite unusual.

Catherine Fox has already pointed out the odd coincidence that links the splendid objects in the shows of King Tutankhamun and of the First Emperor of China: both bodies of work were commissioned by rulers who came to the throne very young and who died young, too. And both were determined to carry on full tilt in the afterlife, resulting in the extraordinary objects found in these two blockbuster shows, both of which also include sufficient contextualizing objects to give some sense of the societies that spawned a Manhattan-sized underground tomb city in the state of Qin and an undersized tomb crammed full with paraphernalia in Pharaonic Egypt.

But these two draws provide only the biggest and most contextualized works of art from only two ancient civilizations. To find the rest, we have to go to the Carlos’ permanent collection or to two other exhibitions at the High, consisting of objects on loan from the Louvre and from the Victoria and Albert.

But both these shows at the High look different after a walkthrough of “The First Emperor.” One of the most arresting objects in that show of stunners is a small jade vessel dated “Late Neolithic to Early Dynastic,” or about 2000 – 1200 B.C. The skillful carving and elegant proportions of this “ritual object” (for so it is labeled) reveal a Chinese civilization already well on the way to the levels of artistic accomplishment that would permit the creation of thousands of larger-than-life-size individualized terra cotta warriors a millennium or two later.

And once sensitized to the skills of the Late Neolithic, the eye is drawn anew to the Egyptian stone vessel in “The Louvre and the Masterpiece.” Here, the craft of the carved vessel has been perfected nearly two millennia earlier than in our Chinese example.

Of course, if we want to do cross-cultural comparisons, we have to look at the Mesopotamian pieces contemporaneous with the Chinese ritual object, and progress chronologically through all the Egyptian dynastic material scattered between the High and the galleries of the Carlos and the Carlos’ Tut blockbuster at the Civic Center.
And that would take so long and would still omit so many periods of history that I can’t imagine anyone actually doing it. And after we had followed that trail of associative links, we would still have the art of the ancient Americas to work through at the Carlos, not to mention a trail of Greek art that includes the stunning seventh-century B. C. Lady of Auxerre from the Louvre.

And then it would be time to pick up the trail in medieval Europe and start thinking about its relationship to the art of the Islamic world (exemplified here by a remarkable fourteenth-century vessel from Syria that eventually served as a baptismal vessel for the French monarchy after having previously been used as a container for holy water during the Easter celebrations).

Actually, we could pick up the trail in Late Antiquity with the Byzantine consular tablet from shortly after the fall of the Western Roman empire, and go on from there through a succession of Western and Eastern Christian objects, but we would have to walk over to the show from the Victoria and Albert to do it.

And we would have to run over to the Carlos to look at some of the comparable materials from Egypt, and to trace things back through Rome and fill in a few more ancient cultures of the Mediterranean. But it would be worth it. Or at least it seemed that way when I did it in the opposite direction.

Monday, November 10, 2008

bear with me

There is actually more to be remarked on than I have energy or eloquence to cover adequately, and I have suppressed more words than I have posted on either blog.

More eventually re the problem of nine art openings in one evening, and the problem of art audiences and connecting the audience with the art.

And much more, I hope. (It is a season for hope.)